This week: Ancient technology

One of the exciting things about archaeology is that, just occasionally, something truly extraordinary comes along and radically changes the way we think about the past.

A fragment of the Antikythera Mechanism. Image: Gary Todd/Flickr.

One such moment came in 1799 with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, a granodiorite slab inscribed in three languages with a proclamation from Ptolemy V, which provided the key to our understanding of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Another came in 1939 with the excavation of an astonishing 7th-century Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, which threw new light on long-held ideas about life during Britain’s so-called ‘Dark Ages’.

As we learn this week on The Past, a third such moment came in 1900, when sponge divers working around the Greek island of Antikythera happened upon a shipwreck containing the single most important object of high technology ever recovered from the ancient world.

For more than a century, scholars have puzzled over the corroded cogs and gearwheels of the ancient astronomical calculating machine known as the Antikythera Mechanism. Entirely unique and apparently centuries ahead of its time, it has often been described as the world’s first analogue computer. But how did it work? And what, precisely, was it for? With only around a third of the original mechanism remaining, the answers have divided experts for decades.

Finally, it seems the solution to this fiendish 3D jigsaw puzzle can now be revealed. As Tony Freeth explains in the new issue of our sister magazine Current World Archaeology and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our unmissable podcast, a multidisciplinary team of scientists from University College London has used groundbreaking new techniques and a close examination of all the data to create the first model of the Antikythera Mechanism that actually satisfies the evidence.

Also this week on The Past, we delve deeper into the archives of our sister magazines to bring you a more complete understanding of the history of ancient technology: in Current Archaeology, we reported from Vindolanda on the discovery of an unusual Roman clock near to Hadrian’s Wall; while in Current World Archaeology, we travelled to East Africa to discover how man’s ongoing love affair with tech began millions of years ago with someone banging two stones together.

And finally, if all that leaves you still hungry for more, why not have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of ancient technology. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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