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

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.

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