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Blog Archaeology 04 February 2014

The largest of the 82 fragments from the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient device that was used to calculate and predict astronomical events.
London Science Museum

A team of archeologists have returned to the remote Greek island of Antikythera where they have used the most sophisticated robot and submarine technology to search for one of the technological wonders of the ancient world.

The Antikythera shipwreck site was found by accident by sponge divers blown off course by a storm in 1900. Diver Elias Stadiatis told his shipmates he had seen corpses beneath the waves - the bodies were found to be a pile of bronze statues from an ancient shipwreck. The sponge divers became part of the world's first large scale underwater archeological expedition. They retrieved a remarkable haul, including a glass bowl and a 1.8 metre statue known as the Antikythera youth - one of the finest bronze figures from the ancient world.

But it took several decades before the most extraordinary find from the wreck was understood. Item 15087 was a lump of bronze about the size of a shoebox. It looked like a mechanical clock and was dubbed the Antikythera Mechanism. Originally believed to be from the first half of the first century BCE, a more recent view dates the mechanism at 205BCE.

In 1958, Yale physicist and historian Derek de Solla Price examined the mechanism for himself. He believed its 30 meshing bronze gears were used to calculate astronomical events, such as solar eclipses, or the next full moon, or the dates of the Olympic Games. In 1974, after an X-ray examination of the mechanism revealed missing gear teeth. Price wrote:

"Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothing comparable to it is known from any scientific text or literary allusion. On the contrary, from all that we know of science and technology in the Hellenistic Age we should have felt that such a device could not exist.
"It must surely rank...