Fragments of the Antikythera machine

The 'Dial of Destiny' is real—and was found in an ancient shipwreck

The Antikythera Mechanism is the latest relic at the center of an Indiana Jones adventure, but what’s the history behind this ancient astronomical device?

Only fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism survive today. In 2021 a team from University College London led by Tony Freeth thoroughly studied them to assess what the true purpose of the device could be.
Bridgeman/Alamy

Said by some to the world’s first computer, the Antikythera Mechanism rested at the bottom of Mediterranean for more than 2,000 years. Nicknamed the "Dial of Destiny," it's taking center stage in the latest Indiana Jones adventure. But the mechanism's discovery was not a matter of destiny but one of serendipity.

Bad weather and good luck

Greek divers gathering sea sponges made the discovery in 1900 after foul weather changed their plans. En route to Tunisia, they were forced to take shelter on Antikythera, an island between mainland Greece and Crete. After the storms subsided, the divers decided to swim for sea sponges off Antikythera.

One diver, Elias Stadiatis, was astonished to see what he at first thought were human bodies strewn across the seabed. The divers hadn’t discovered bodies but works of art: dozens of statues of gods, heroes, and men. Subsequent investigations revealed a shipwreck site with even more ancient treasures, including the corroded metal remains of a mysterious, geared device.

(This 'Countess of Computing' wrote the first computer program.)

Deep recovery

Requiring stamina and strength, sponge diving was a key maritime activity in the ancient Aegean world—sponges were referenced in the epic poems of Homer. The more modern divers on that 1900 mission not only found but later, in a global first, helped salvage one of the most significant shipwrecks ever discovered.

(How do we find shipwrecks—and who owns them?)

The statues on the wreck lay at a depth of around 180 feet. By 1900, sponge divers were using diving suits and such depths were just within their range. The team was able to reach the seafloor and brought a life-size bronze arm fragment to the surface.

Keeping the location of the wreck a secret, the crew’s captain, Dimetrios Kontos, alerted authorities in Athens and showed them the bronze arm as proof of the discovery. Kontos was excited about the find and hoped his divers might put their skills to work on the archaeological recovery.

The Greek government was receptive. War, financial woes, and political instability were taking a toll on the nation; salvaging a shipwreck whose cargo was filled with reminders of the country’s past glories would do wonders for national morale. Having secured a promise that his men would be hired for the salvage work, Kontos revealed the shipwreck’s exact location only after setting out for Antikythera, accompanied by the Greek Navy.

(This mysterious graveyard of shipwrecks was found far from sea.)

Supervised by the Department of Antiquities, work began in November 1900 and stretched into 1901 after dangerous conditions halted the team. Casualties included two divers who were paralyzed and one fatality from decompression sickness. Kontos and the remaining crew recovered most of the cargo, and the treasures were taken to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Luxuries in transit

The cargo ship, with a capacity of around 300 tons, had wrecked off Antikythera around 70 to 60 B.C., but its cargo ranged in age from the fourth to the first century B.C. Coins found on the vessel suggest it might have come from the island of Delos in the eastern Aegean or from Pergamon or Ephesus, on Turkey’s western coast. The destination was probably Italy, where the Roman elite were hungry for Greek luxuries and artwork.

The cargo ship that sank off Antikythera in the first century B.C. was carrying dozens of statues destined for the luxury Roman art market. Many can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, including this bust. The materials on the eyes of this portion of a larger bronze sculpture dating to the fourth century B.C. were well-preserved.

Ephebe

The cargo ship that sank off Antikythera in the first century B.C. was carrying dozens of statues destined for the luxury Roman art market. Many can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, including this bust. The materials on the eyes of this portion of a larger bronze sculpture dating to the fourth century B.C. were well-preserved.
G. Nimatallah/Getty Images

Among the rich collection of exceptionally realistic bronze sculptures were the statues “Ephebe of Antikythera” (produced between 340 to 330 B.C.) and the so-called “Philosopher” (230 B.C.). There are also 36 marble sculptures in different sizes and states of preservation. These include a large (initially headless) statue of Hercules, recovered in the 1900 dive, whose head was finally found on the seabed in 2022. Divers also unearthed three life-size marble horses, jewelry, coins, and glassware.

(These ancient Greek weapons were quite literally toxic.)

Another major excavation occurred decades later in 1976. Directed by French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, the team recovered more works of art, including the statue known as the “Boxer,” and also brought up pieces of the ship for study. Their underwater footage of the wreck would prove valuable to future expeditions.

Antikythera yielded more discoveries in the 21st century. Advances allowed for more detailed mapping of the site, and recent expeditions have revealed other wreckage along the island’s coast.

Wheels of time

Perhaps the most intriguing discovery at Antikythera was once its most unassuming. In 1901 pieces of corroded metal recovered with the cargo barely attracted notice. In 1902, the Greek Minister of Education, Spyridon Stais, realized the scraps looked mechanical, similar to the kind of toothed gears found in modern machines.

(The world’s oldest map of the night sky from the Greeks was amazingly accurate.)

The unprecedented find now known as the Antikythera Mechanism has fascinated scholars for more than a century. Its 82 fragments were once a functioning astronomical device that could predict the positions of the sun, moon, and planets.

Sometimes described as an early “analog computer,” it is by far the oldest geared mechanism known to date. Its exact age is still a mystery. Archaeologists can safely say it is the same vintage as the shipwreck (70 to 60 B.C.), but some speculate it could date to 200 B.C. Study of the wreck and its treasures continues—more may be revealed in the years to come.

The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Media.

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