This week, word began to spread around some corners of the web that a new piece of the legendary ancient Greek computer known as the Antikythera Mechanism may have been found. But the claims, which surfaced following a Haaretz feature on the ongoing archaeological work in the area where the device was first uncovered, are misleading at best.
The Antikythera Mechanism is one of the most well-known and intriguing archaeological discoveries of all time. During a 1900-1901 investigation, sponge divers near the Greek island of Antikythera discovered the arms of bronze and marble statues reaching out of the seabed, remains of a shipwreck dating to the 1st or 2nd century B.C., and a rock-encrusted object that appeared to be a series of cogs and gears. Over the coming decades, researchers examined the mechanism, eventually determining it was likely a complex device that contained more than 30 gears used to calculate the date, position of planets, constellations and, perhaps, additional information. It was, in other words, a primitive sort of computer. But pieces of the salvaged device, including some cogs, were missing, presumably lying on the sea floor at the wreck site.
Researchers have since returned to the site in hopes of finding these lost pieces, including Jacques Cousteau who found bones at the wreck and pulled up bronze statues in 1976. Two other scientific expeditions took place in 2012 and in 2017.
It was during that last expedition that marine archaeologists from the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities and Lund University in Sweden uncovered more treasures including pieces of a bronze statue and an encrusted bronze disk with four tabs on it that appeared almost like a cog wheel. That piece, called the Taurus disk because it bears the image of a bull, is the artifact that Haaretz identified as a possible part of the mechanism. But even the article backpedals, conceding, "It will be difficult to prove what exactly the Taurus disk is: part of the original Antikythera Mechanism, part of a second such mechanism, if one existed, or something else entirely.”
As Jamie Seidel at News.com.au reports, experts have not publicly suggested that the disk functioned as a cog wheel. Rather X-rays of the disk conducted last year revealed that image of the bull and the four holes. Following the excavation, Sarah Gibbens of National Geographic wrote that the small disk was “reminiscent” of the Antikythera Mechanism, but that expedition co-leader Aggeliki Simossi said it was unclear what its purpose was. "It is maybe decoration for furniture or maybe a seal, or it could be an instrument," as Simossi told Gibbens. "It is very early to say."
While Haaretz and others reported the bull image suggests the disc was used in the machine to predict the position of the constellation Taurus, it does not appear to be finely crafted enough function as a cog wheel in the precision machine. As Seidel reports, in a best-case scenario, it may have adorned the case the Antikythera Mechanism was housed in, but there is no proven relation to the device.
That does not mean other bits of the mechanism aren’t to be found in the wreck. In fact, the expedition re-examining the wreck, called Return to Antikythera, holds out the possibility that more bits and pieces of the machine, which some believe may have been two distinct devices, can be found.
Whatever the case, the machine was truly ahead of its time, and the world wouldn’t see such intricate mechanical work again for 1,000 years. While we don’t know all we’d like about the mechanism, we are learning more about the ship it sailed on. It was likely a massive Greek grain ship, one of the largest ancient ships ever found, as archaeologist Brendan Foley, who led the new expeditions, tells Haaretz. At the times of its sinking, which likely happened in a storm, it was probably full of grain, statues and wealthy passengers, perhaps one who clung to his prized gadget as he sank into the sea.