A photo of the Antikythera Mechanism in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece
Tilemahos Efthimiadis from Athens, Greece [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

Classicist Paul Iversen wins National Endowment for the Humanities award to research the world’s oldest known computing device

When the Antikythera Mechanism was discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of a Greek island in 1901, it was shrouded in mystery.

As technology advanced, researchers applied new approaches to examine it. They’ve since uncovered the purpose of the device, finding it to be an ancient time-keeping mechanism—the world’s oldest known computing device, predating any other such device by 1,000 years.

Now, Paul Iversen, associate professor and chair of the Department of Classics at Case Western Reserve University, has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to expand that research even further.

Through the project, Iversen will examine the inscriptions on the Antikythera Mechanism and analyze its calendar. He hopes that a better understanding of these will shed light onto previously unknown aspects of the mechanism as well as ancient Greek history and religion.

History of the Antikythera Mechanism

In 1900, Greek sponge divers discovered a graveyard of statues amidst a shipwreck scattered off the coast of the sparsely populated Greek islet of Antikythera.

The following summer, the device now known as the Antikythera Mechanism was among the artifacts brought to the surface in a marine archeology expedition. Months later, somebody noticed inscriptions on the severely corroded device, and efforts began to understand it. Initially, some believed it to be an astrolabe—a device used by mariners to ascertain a ship’s latitude.

But, after decades of careful cleaning, researcher Derek de Solla Price was better able to read some of the inscriptions on the surface of the device. Plus, he used newer X-ray technology to examine its inner workings. Through this research in the 1950s-’70s, he determined the mechanism was used to compute time intervals important to ancient Greek lunisolar calendars—calendars based on both lunar months and solar years like the traditional Jewish and Chinese calendars of today.

In 2005, a new team of researchers known as The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project used CT technology and software to get much sharper images of the inside of the device, which unexpectedly revealed inscriptions below the device’s surface that had not been read in over 2,000 years, including a complete Greek calendar and a dial listing several Panhellenic athletic games. The researchers published a complete edition of these inscriptions in 2016.

Iversen first began looking into the Antikythera Mechanism in 2010-11, based on the understanding that the calendar found on it may have belonged to the ancient Greek city-state Corinth, which he was studying. (He has since determined that it was probably the Epirote calendar, which may have been adopted directly from Corinth.)

“There was little evidence for the Corinthian calendar. Corinth was one of the top three or four ancient Greek city-states, and we knew next to nothing about its calendar,” Iversen said. “To be able to bring that calendar back from the abyss would be something very important for Greek historical and religious studies.”

While some date the mechanism to be as early as 205 B.C., Iversen places it closer to the shipwreck, which is estimated to have happened sometime between 70 and 50 B.C.

Iversen’s project

Though Iversen and others have researched the device for years, there is still more to learn from it.

Supported by $60,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency that “supports research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities,” Iversen will co-write a book on the Antikythera Mechanism with John D. Morgan, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware, and an “accomplished arm-chair classicist,” according to Iversen. Iversen’s NEH award tied for the highest amount given to a researcher in the state of Ohio.

Under contract by Brill, the book is tentatively titled The Antikythera Mechanism and Ancient Greek Calendars.

Iversen will re-evaluate the inscriptions using a high-powered computer located in CWRU’s Interactive Commons and specialized software to make new reconstructions of the device using the 2005 CT data.

“With the generous support of Dean Cyrus Taylor, the Interactive Commons’ Mark Grisworld, the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, and the Freedman Fellows program, I’m hoping to give the best and most authoritative text of all the inscriptions of the mechanism in one place,” Iversen said.

Another main focus of the project for Iversen is examining lunisolar calendars more generally, and understanding how the device’s calendar relates to others in the family of Greek Doric calendars.

Iversen also will further explore a dial on the device that tracked Panhellenic games, building on his previous work on the Naa, Nemea and Halieia games, and delving into the Olympia, Isthmia and Pythia games.

By exploring these aspects of the device, Iversen will give context to its purpose and reveal a broader look at ancient Greece.