The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project

06 Feb

The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project is an international collaboration of academic researchers, supported by some of the world’s best high-technology companies, which aims to completely reassess the function and significance of the Antikythera Mechanism.

Project Overview

antikythera_fragment_a_200x212 More than a hundred years ago an extraordinary mechanism was found by sponge divers at the bottom of the sea near the island of Antikythera. It astonished the whole international community of experts on the ancient world. Was it an astrolabe? Was it an Orrery or an astronomical clock? Or something else?

For decades, scientific investigation failed to yield much light and relied more on imagination than the facts. However research over the last half century has begun to reveal its secrets. It dates from around the end of the 2nd century B.C. and is the most sophisticated mechanism known from the ancient world. Nothing as complex is known for the next thousand years. The Antikythera Mechanism is now understood to be dedicated to astronomical phenomena and operates as a complex mechanical "computer" which tracks the cycles of the Solar System.

radiograph016_fragmenta_2560x3117c Previous researchers have used the latest technologies available to them -such as x-ray analysis- to try to begin to unravel its complex mysteries. Now a new initiative is building on this previous work, using the very latest techniques available today. The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project is an international collaboration of academic researchers, supported by some of the world’s best high-technology companies, which aims to completely reassess the function and significance of the Antikythera Mechanism.

The project is under the aegis of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and was initially supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust, UK. More details bout subsequent funding are here. The project has received strong backing from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, which is custodian of this unique artifact. Two of the Museum’s senior staff, Head of Chemistry, Eleni Magou, and Archaeologist-museologist, Mary Zafeiropoulou, have co-ordinated the Museum’s side of the project and are actively involved with the research.

One UK and two Greek universities are the core of the academic research group -the astronomer Mike Edmunds and the mathematician and filmmaker Tony Freeth (University of Cardiff), the astronomer John Seiradakis (University of Thessalonica), the astronomer Xenophon Moussas and the physicist and historian of science Yanis Bitsakis (University of Athens). And last, but not least, the philologist and palaeographer Agamemnon Tselikas (NBG Cultural Foundation).

During the first data-gathering phase in the autumn of 2005, the most innovative technologies were used to reveal unknown elements of the mechanism. This research was carried out by two world-class high technology companies, Hewlett Packard (US) and X-Tek Systems (UK). X-Tek’s superb three-dimensional x-rays were imaged using software from the leading German company, Volume Graphics. Technical support was also provided by the University of Keele (UK). The whole process was filmed by Tony Freeth’s Film and Television production company, Images First, for a forthcoming TV documentary.

During September 2005, three specialized scientists from Hewlett-Packard’s Mobile and Media Systems Laboratory came to Athens with their innovative digital imaging system to examine the surface inscriptions and other features on the Antikythera Mechanism. The HP team, Tom Malzbender, Dan Gelb and Bill Ambrisco-brought with them a remarkable piece of specialist equipment: a Dome that surrounds the sample under examination and takes a series of still photos to analyze the three-dimensional structure of the surface. This enables astonishingly detailed examination of fine details such as faded and worn inscriptions. It has been a revelation for the research team. See here for this data.

During October 2005, another team of specialists from the cutting-edge company, X-Tek Systems, came to Athens. Led by the company’s pioneering proprietor, Roger Hadland, the group of experts consisted of David Bate, Andrew Ramsey, Martin Allen, Alan Crawley and Peter Hockley. Their aim was to use the very latest x-ray technology to look at the internal structure of the mechanism with its complex and confusing gear trains. With them they brought the prototype of a very powerful new x-ray machine, the eight-tonne "Bladerunner". Originally designed to search for minute cracks in turbine blades, this machine gives astonishingly detailed three-dimensional x-rays, using the latest "microfocus" x-ray techniques. It has opened a remarkable window on microscopic internal details of inscriptions and gearing at a resolution better than a tenth of a millimeter. Inscriptions can now be read that have not been seen for more than two thousand years and this is helping to build a comprehensive picture of the functions of the Antikythera Mechanism. Browse here some of the initial images from the Blade Runner.

This is work-in-progress and results are emerging on a stable basis as the data is analyzed.

The Data

The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project is providing definitive data on the three-dimensional structure of the Antikythera Mechanism and its surface inscriptions—to ensure indefinite conservation of the priceless information content of this spectacular artifact.

This data is available in a digital data archive for future researchers and we are confident that this will stimulate a new and more dynamic era in the history of research on this unique artifact.

More than one Terabyte of data (1000 Gigabytes) has been collected and processed. The data consists of:
– Digital photographs
– Surface imaging (PTMs)
– X-rays (2D and 3D)

Two data sets are available online:
1. The full resolution PTMs, at the HP Labs download page. 82 PTMs are available, from the 82 remaining fragments of the Mechanism (the number of PTMs, 82, is a coincidence, since some small fragments are grouped into a single PTM, and the larger fragments are imaged on more than one PTM per fragment. You can also browse a beautiful interactive relighting of the Mechanism here.
2. The Digital Radiographs of all the known remaining fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism, acquired by X-Tek Systems with the BladeRunner System, are available for viewing and download on the website of Shaw Inspection Systems (formerly X-Tek Industrial).
Extensive data from Computed Tomography (CT) can not be released online at this time, since the data sets are much too large. Researchers interested in accessing the CT data should contact the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project.

Some partial results can be browsed online:

1. Images from the data gathering phase, the people, and the Mechanism (CT slices, animations etc.)
2. Presentations in Athens, May 30 2006
3. Fragments, Glyphs & Inscriptions, Gears ("Nature" Supplementary Information and submitted version of the main article in November 2006)

Source: The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project


The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP) publishes results on a stable basis, as data is processed and results are analyzed [last update: November 20, 2009].

The first article was published in "Nature" in 2006: Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism

Subsequently, a second article was published in "Nature" in 2008, whit authors being members of the research project and scientific collaborators from the field of history of astronomy: Calendars with Olympiad display and eclipse prediction on the Antikythera Mechanism

Before the creation of the AMRP, two members had already published scholarly articles on the Mechanism. The first was Mike Edmunds, in 2000:

The Antikythera Mechanism: still a mystery of Greek Astronomy.
Tony Freeth published two articles in 2002:
The Antikythera Mechanism: 1. Challenging the classic research
The Antikythera Mechanism: 2. Is it Posidonius’ orrery?

In 2009, Tony Freeth has also published this article in Scientific American, fifty years after Derek Price’s initial article in the same journal.

In addition to these, the AMRP published two booklets:

One catalogue to accompany an exhibition at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, in July 2008: The Antikythera Mechansm: Decoding an Ancient Greek Mystery by Tony Freeth

One abstract booklet for the Athens Conference in 2006, published with the Cultural Foundation of the National Bank of Greece: Decoding the Antikythera Mechanism: Science and Technology in Ancient Greece.

We are expecting more publications in the near future, both from the AMRP and from scientific collaborators of the Research Project. This page will be regularly updated. You may also check the following page for an extensive list of publications on the Antikythera Mechanism and on the context of Ancient Astronomy and Technology:

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Posted by on February 6, 2010 in Science News, Special Interest


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