This is the first of two posts arising from recent and ongoing work (some of which I’ve been involved in) on the Antikythera Mechanism. Two installments of this project have been published in Nature, in 2006 and 2008. For a partial bibliography see:
A classic (but now very outdated) study is Derek de Solla Price, Gears From the Greeks, 1974.
The Mechanism was a bronze gearwork device for displaying astronomical and chronological cycles and phenomena. It was recovered from the “Antikythera Wreck” c. 1900, and now consists of some 80 or so fragments in the Archeological Museum in Athens. From several considerations, including most usefully some datable coins from Pergamum and Ephesus recovered from the wreck in 1976, the wreck can be dated to after (but probably not very long after) 70 B.C., and its cargo was luxury items (bronze and marble statuary, glassware, and of course our Mechanism itself).
It is generally assumed, with good reason, that the vessel got its cargo from one or more places in Asia Minor and the Aegean, and was heading west, maybe to Italy. The Mechanism, however, turns out, as we recently discovered, to have had an inscribed dial displaying the current date according to the Corinthian calendar, which means that it was made for–if not in fact made in–one of the several regions (Corinth, NW Greece, parts of Sicily, all on the “wrong” side of Antikythera) where this calendar was used. This is obviously puzzling. (I’ll return to the subject of the Corinthian calendar in my second post.)
We’d also really like to know the approximate date of the Mechanism: obviously it predates the wreck, thus can hardly be later than mid-first-century B.C., but was it new then or, like the statues in the cargo, already old? There seems little prospect of getting help with this question from analysis of the (in any case extremely corroded) metal. The astronomical knowledge built into the Mechanism would fit the first century, but we don’t know enough about earlier Hellenistic astronomy to be able to rule out the 2nd century or even the 3rd, though such an early date would go against a lot of current assumptions about what 3rd century B.C. Greek astronomy looked like. The only independent evidence we seem to have for the date is the paleography of the abundant inscriptions which were engraved on practically all the available exterior surfaces plus some supplementary plates.