Ancient Gears

Apr 14, 2021 | Diggings Online | 0 comments

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The Athens museum is stuffed full of wonderful works of art, many of which brought a joyful shock of recognition to those who toured it last year: these were objects familiar from photographs in books or magazines and to see them in the flesh, so to speak, was a delight. The mask of Agamemnon, its gleaming gold appearing to leap from the display case, is one such example; the crude stone gods from the Cyclades another. For me, however, the greatest excitement came from a lump of corroded brass.

Greek law obliges us to have a guide and, indeed, forbids us doing any guiding ourselves. We found ourselves, therefore, encumbered with a charming and capable lady called Pat. She was pleasant, her English was excellent, her knowledge superlative. There were two things wrong with her, however. The first was that she had long since lost the excitement of seeing Greece’s past – hardly surprising, when she took groups round every day of every week of every month of every year. The second was that she stuck to the script taught her at the school for guides.

Our visit to the museum was an example of these two faults. She gave us a splendid lecture on the history of Greek art, tracing its development from primitive beginnings to the full glory of the golden age of Pericles and then its decline – well, she didn’t have much to say about the decline, for some reason – illustrating her lecture by reference to the objects in the museum. Unfortunately we got exactly the same lecture in Crete, the only difference was the museum and the choice of objects to illustrate the recital.

Pat completely omitted any reference to the new display of ancient glass mounted by the Athens museum, she didn’t even take us into the room of Greek armour and my lump of corroded brass. When she had finished and was waiting for us to buy our postcards, visit the toilets and return to the bus, I collected the group together and took them to see the treasues that Pat had passed by. We viewed the glass, we saw our first strigil, we gawped at the triumphal chariot, and then I took the group to see the lump of corroded brass.

Unfortunately, they were not as impressed as I had hoped. Bated breath was noticeably lacking, cameras remained unraised, notebooks unwritten in, and long before I had gazed my fill, they wandered off to buy postcards, visit the toilet and return to the bus. Sayings about pearls and swine hovered in my mind until I recalled that not everyone shares my interest in things mechanical.

I love steam engines, for example. I could spend hours watching the pistons slide smoothly back and forth, the heavy balls of the regulator spin, the valves clicking open and shut. I do my own car maintenance – and boast that my last car went three times round the clock before succumbing to advanced rust in its non-mechanical parts. The engine, however, ran as sweetly as the day I bought it and still started at first turn of the key.

I suppose, therefore, that the lump of corroded brass would hold a special fascination for me. It was, of course, the famous Antikythera astrolobe.

Back in 1900 a shipwreck was found off Antikythera, near northern Crete. Divers sent down to the wreck some 160 feet below the surface were able to recover dozens of Greek bronze statues and, even more interesting, marble copies of those statues made by the Romans. The wreck, which dates to around 75 BC, was believed to be carrying a load of objects from Pergamon or some other large artistic centre in western Anatolia.

Of course, in those days before the invention of the aqualung, there was no question of proper excavation of the wreck. The divers simply went down, grabbed whatever they could attach a rope to, and hauled it to the surface. They also filled bags and baskets with anything that looked interesting and among these indiscriminate objects was the lump of corroded metal.

Taken back to the museum, the worst of the corrosion was scraped off the lump and the astonished conservators found the clear signs of complicated gearing – neatly cut cog wheels intermeshing in a manner reminiscent of a Swiss watch. Unfortunately only a quarter of the object was preserved. If you can imagine that it was originally a circle some four or five inches in diameter, only a single quadrant survives. In addition, the masses of corroded metal obscure at least as many gear wheels as are revealed.

As a result we have no very clear idea of how it worked. It is presumed that it was some sort of navigation device which, perhaps, could be rotated to show the positions of various heavenly bodies throughout the night, but there is no certainty about this. For all we know it might have been some sort of complicated mechanical game, the ancient equivalent of a Gameboy or Nintendo. Even if it was a navigational device, how was it worked? Did the user turn it by hand or was it operated by some sort of spring or weight? Whole books have been written to defend one theory or another, but the plain fact is that we will never know.

Unless, of course, some modern scuba diver were to return to Antikythera and find the missing three-quarters of the object. (Mind you, even then we still probably would not be able to work out what it was or how it operated.) Or another such object, perhaps better preserved, turns up from another wreck.

That is not at all beyond the bounds of possibility. The Greek Ministry of Culture has records of more than a thousand shipwrecks in Greek waters, found in the last quarter of a century. These are in addition to the twelve hundred catalogued in “Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and Roman Provinces”, published by A. J. Parker in 1994. Hardly any of these wrecks have been investigated and most are known only by sonar or radar detection.

The Greeks refuse to publish even the list, fearing – probably rightly – that by doing so they would direct looters to the sites. Unfortunately the wrecks continue to be damaged by trawl nets or even by illegal fishing with explosives. Unless something is done, these wrecks will eventually disappear through the slow attrition of such damage – and the first thing must be to prohibit fishing and diving in the areas of the wrecks. That, of course, will alert potential robbers to the presence of something valuable in the area, a real Catch 22 situation.

The American government has recently come in for some well-deserved criticism for its failure to protect the treaures of the Baghdad museum. I fear that similar criticism should be heaped on the heads of the Greek authorities. Just because the objects in these wrecks have not yet been discovered, catalogued and put in a museum does not make them less valuable as sources of information about the past.

To my mind, the solution is to ban trawler fishing – an ecological measure that can only improve the seabed, both for the archaeologist and the environmentalist – and to enforce stricter measures against “fishing” with explosives. It may seem odd to some, but I have passed my entire life – over half a century – without ever handling an explosive, not even a shotgun catridge. If every stick of dynamite and TNT were to be put under the most extreme lock and key and only issued to those with a real need for it, my civil liberties would be in no way infringed. I have never yet felt my manhood threatened by the lack of opportunities to play with Semtex.

However, whatever method is adopted, the Greeks do need to do something about their wrecks. After all, I would really like to know before I die how the Antikythera astrolobe worked.

September 2003

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