Ancient Greek artefact was an 'astronomical computer' - Science - News - The Independent

Ancient Greek artefact was an 'astronomical computer'

An astronomical instrument built by the Ancient Greeks in the 2nd century BC has turned out to be a complex computer for calculating the relative position of the sun, the moon and the planets.

Scientists studied the internal workings of the machine by using a sophisticated medical scanner. They concluded it was at least 1,000 years ahead of its time.

The Antikythera Mechanism was rescued from a Roman shipwreck at the turn of the last century but its precise function was little understood because it was broken into 82 pieces.

Made of bronze and wood, the device was evidently an instrument of some sort because it used a complicated set of gears to move a series of concentric wheels and pointers that appeared to predict movements of astronomical objects. But scientists were surprised to find it was in fact a sophisticated analogue computer that acted as a long-term calendar for predicting lunar and solar eclipses and planetary movements.

An international team of scientists drawn from many different disciplines took part in the study. Their picture of how the device worked and what it was intended to do has astonished classical scholars.

Professor Mike Edmunds of Cardiff University, a leading member of the research team, said: "This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop.

"Whoever has done this had done it extremely well. It does raise the question of what else were they making at the time. In terms of historic and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa."

The scientists, including researchers from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, found the gearing mechanism of the device acted as a long-term calendar, enabling its operators to track the moon and the sun through the zodiac, predict eclipses and even calculate the irregular orbit of the moon.

"Calendars were important to ancient societies for timing agricultural activity and fixing religious festivals," the scientists write in a study published in the journal Nature.

"Eclipses and planetary motions were often interpreted as omens, while the calm regularity of the astronomical cycles must have been philosophically attractive in an uncertain and violent world," they say.

Greek sponge-divers discovered the Roman shipwreck off the island of Antikythera in 1900. A year later, archaeologists recovered the device which had been submerged for about 2,000 years.

The shipwreck was dated to about 65BC but the instrument was thought to have been made earlier, between 100BC and 150BC, possibly by the great Greek astronomer Hipparchos, who, at that time, lived on the island of Rhodes.

Astronomers believe Hipparchos was probably involved because he was the first to track the irregularities in the orbit of the moon, which the device seems to be designed to predict.

There are three dials on the device. The front dial displays the position of the sun and the moon in the zodiac and a corresponding calendar of 365 days, which could be adjusted for leap years. The back dials track the long-term lunar cycle, including the Metonic cycle of 19 years, when the same phase of the moon returns on the same date of the year.

The dials also track the Callippic cycle of 76 years, when the moon returns to the same position in the sky relative to the zodiac and its monthly lunar phase.

Francois Charette, an astronomer at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, said finding such a complicated computer in Ancient Greece was like finding the plans for a steam engine in Renaissance Italy.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Sport
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

Retail Business Analyst

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

Senior C++ Developer

£400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week