Michael Bywater

Deeply mysterious

A mysterious ancient mechanism was hauled from the Mediterranean in 1900 — but it’s taken over a century to figure it out

Deeply mysterious
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A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World

Alexander Jones

OUP, pp. 288, £

The human urge for personal hygiene has had many improbable side-effects, and I can confidently assert that through the ages, sponge-divers have punched consistently above their weight. Bronze-age tools, 10th-century Islamic glassware, a Byzantine ship whose plunge to the bottom was cushioned by the fourth-century Roman wreck it alighted upon, anchors, amphorae, sculpture: if it’s down there, they’ll bring it up.

And so, around Easter 1900, there they were, waiting out the bad weather in the shelter of Potamós on Antikythera, a small island northwest of Crete.

They decided to use their time profitably, took an exploratory plunge, and one of them, Ilias Lykopantis, discovered a life-size bronze arm, subsequently fetched up by the ship-owner’s brother-in-law Dimitrios Kontos.

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The authorities were informed, by optical telegraph (set up three years earlier, to foil the dastardly Turks; plus ça change), that a great treasure had been found; but the authorities declared that it was Eastertime, and so the telegraph operator was clearly drunk.

The months went by. The authorities obstructed. The press fussed and hurled accusations. And bit by bit, the finds grew smaller, until up came a ‘slab’ with hard to read inscriptions, and fragments of an ancient gearwork mechanism.

Or, rather, Mechanism.

And so, standing upon the shoulders of 117 years of meticulous giants, comes Alexander Jones, who is Professor of the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World — a job title worth citing in full, not only because of its own flawless exactitude, but because, in a world slowly becoming blacker than a shipworm, it is a cause for joy that such a post, at such an institute, exists. And Jones sets out to synthesise their work, and to attend to the great question: what the hell were they doing?

The question is, naturally, a near-universal when dealing with ancient history. Sometimes we have to work out the question, first, or at least try to work out the rough domain in which the question can be asked. Cultural matters are, in a sense, less pressing. When we read (or, less often, see) an Athenian tragedy, it’s obviously a play. Only later do we ask ourselves what on earth it was about, and why it was sort of compulsory, and whether women went, and if it had some civic or religious function. Similarly, we might wonder how a session at the Baths of Caracalla would have gone, or whether togas itched, or what garam sauce tasted like, or why the Greeks were so prone to what the classicist James Davidson called ‘ancient fish-madness’.

But when it comes to machineries, the question forces itself on our attention. There’s no halfway house to understanding. Trying to gauge what a contemporary machine is or does is just as opaque; but now it’s likely as to be a sealed black box, and we can simply shrug. Survivals from antiquity are few, and not so easily set aside. The Antikythera Mechanism, like Stonehenge at the other end of the spectrum, demands that we at least try to work out its function.

And try we did. It was (asserted an early attempt at identification) an astrolabe. Except that it wasn’t because one fragment had gears, which drove rings, which represented planets, which means it wasn’t an observational instrument but a sort of planetarium. A row, of course, broke out in, of course, the Archaeological Society of Athens. Subsequent attempts, before less invasive methods of imaging, elucidate some hints but at the cost of some destruction of evidence.

The chase, which dominates the book, is as riveting as any thriller or criminal investigation. ‘A tiny rectangular notch on one of the gears of Fragment A’ turned out, a century later, to be ‘a key element of one of the Mechanism’s most sophisticated functions’, which is not only thrilling, in a miniaturist sort of way, but also points up the central question-begging of such an investigation: unless we know how it works, we can’t understand what it is; but if we have no idea (or a mistaken one) of what it does, we can’t understand how it works. So investigators resorted to a sort of engineering simile, a mechanymy if you like: because the Mechanism was complex, and the only comparably complex artefact of its period was an astrolabe, then the Mechanism was some sort of astrolabe, and we were getting somewhere.

That where we were getting was in the wrong direction (like one of those elderly gentlemen found tootling cheerfully the wrong way up the M1) didn’t matter too much. The quest was the thing. And there is a strange gentle savagery in many of Jones’s remarks; on the work of the naval officer Periklis Rediadis (the leading astrolabe theorist) he writes that he

did not try to show how a system of gears could convert an altitude angle into, say, time of day … one is struck by how little his interpretation of the Mechanism’s purpose depended on his … erroneous attempt to fit the fragments together.

But, wrong as he was, Rediadis did come up with the

more general idea that the gears functioned as a device for calculating quantitative data by means of moving parts—that is, an analog computer.

What did it compute? And why did it compute it? I am reluctant to give it away, but — spoiler alert — it was a sort of teaching device. Also a boasting device, like the ludicrous watches rich men wear, always perhaps hoping someone will stop them in the street and ask if by any chance they have the correct phase of the moon. You could demonstrate the positions of the planets (the ‘Wanderers’) and calculate horoscopes As Jones’s subtitle puts it: a portable cosmos.

But it was one whose elucidation was as wondrously wrought as the Mechanism itself. Jones’s text, too, is precise but calm, elegant and with a certain charm. His learning is broad: here’s Ptolemy, here are gear ratios, here’s Cicero and Galen, Babylonians, planets, lunar months, Glauco, epicyclics and the ‘Spindle of Necessity’. And it is not just the cosmos that is demonstrated, but the vast difference, and astonishing similarity, between us and our ancestors. So out of the history of science comes a sense of our humanity and the ancient desire to comprehend. God knows, it’s timely, in the shrivelled cosmos we are building. We need more books like this. And probably more sponge-divers, too.

Michael Bywater, once identified as a young fogey, is a certified pilot and harpsichordist.