2,000 Year Old Computer Discovered In Shipwreck

A 2000 year-old computer has been found in a shipwreck

It appears that the advent of computing began before the birth of Christ, over 2000 years ago, after the discovery of a small bronze mechanism under the sea off Crete. 

The Antikythera mechanism is thought to be the first ever programmable computer, and the oldest computer in existence.

Yahoo News reports:

Thanks to an intricate series of gears and dials, the mechanism could be used as a calendar, to track the phases of the moon, and to predict eclipses. It’s an object out of time: no other artefact as complex was built during the thousand years after the mechanism’s creation–that we know of.

The Antikythera mechanism was named after the shipwreck on which it was discovered. Having sunk to the bottom of the sea in the first century BCE taking the mechanism with it, the shipwreck lay undisturbed until 1900, when a group of Greek sponge divers discovered it and began bringing its treasures to the surface.

After the death of one diver and two others becoming paralysed, operations to recover the artefacts were brought to a halt, but not before statues, ceramics, and the mechanism itself were brought up.

In 1953 and 1976, marine explorer Jacques Cousteau led the next expeditions to the wreck, bringing an assortment of objects, including more statues, coins, and gemstones. Due to the depth of the wreck and the diving technology of the period, divers could only spend a handful of minutes investigating the ship at a time or risk the bends that proved fatal to the first expedition.

Now, after time and technology has moved on, the Greek government invited a team from theWoods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), headed by Dr. Brendan Foley, to begin the first significant excavation of the wreck since the Frenchman’s over 40 years ago. If Cousteau and his team made sprints to the Antikythera, the WHOI exploration is set to be more of a marathon.

“We’ve been taking this steady incremental approach to the shipwreck, building the foundation of knowledge about it, then posing specific research questions, trying to answer them, and seeing what the next phase brings. When we first got to Antikythera in 2012, one of the questions we had was, does the island hold a whole lot of submerged cultural resources or is this the only shipwreck out there?” Foley said.

Investigators had only scratched the surface of the Antikythera in the last nearly two thousand years. A second wreck–mentioned in passing by Cousteau’s team but never really explored–had been keeping the first, better-explored ship company all these years, practically untouched.

Foley team set about circumnavigating the island of Antikythera, off whose coast the wreck lay, carrying out technical dives over a period of eight days, where they mapped everything human-made from the sea’s surface down to its floor, 45 meters below.

When Cousteau’s team had spotted the second wreck, they saw amphorae that looked probably Roman in origin–meaning the wreck could date from any time up to the fourth century BCE.

“We were the first archaeologists to see this [second] site and immediately we recognised that it had the exact same ceramics as the treasure wreck just up the coast” where the mechanism had been found, said Foley. The similarities between the two wrecks raised questions. Was the second wreck, dubbed Antikythera B, another ship that had sunk around the same time as the first Antikythera wreck? A second ship travelling in convoy with the Antikythera? Or something else entirely?

The debris trail stretching the 300 meters between the two ships looked to be continuous, suggesting that the two wreck sites were part of one larger ship that had split into two parts. Foley’s team will be testing the hypothesis over the next few visits to the site, using technology to help them determine the true origins of the second wreck.

As it has every year since since 2012, the team returned to Antikythera this summer to probe the wreck further, examining the area between the two wrecks and using both human divers and robots.

The team is using an autonomous underwater vehicle equipped with stereo cameras. Using an algorithm called SLAM (simultaneous localisation and mapping), the imagery from the stereo cameras can be knitted together to make an extremely precise map of the seafloor. During a few days in June, the robot created 10,500 square meters of map, with a resolution of 2mm. A separate remotely operated vehicle (ROV) carrying metal detecting equipment is also being used to spot hints of bronze or iron-carrying objects lying in the water.

Information from the ROV will be overlaid on top of the data from the 3D map generated by the autonomous underwater vehicle to build up a heat map of where the team should direct their excavation efforts when they return to the site later this summer.

By focusing excavation efforts on areas that show a higher density of metal, the excavations could potentially turn up more fragments of the Antikythera mechanism (only half of the system has been recovered to date). While such a discovery would generate headlines, tiny flecks of lead may have equally fascinating stories to tell.

If any lead artefacts are recovered, the team will take microscopic samples from them and send them away for spectroscopic analysis. By comparing the lead’s isotope profile to other samples from around the world, the researchers will be able to hone in on where the ship was built, or where it sailed from.

“One of the goals will be to virtually excavate and re-excavate the site in the computer afterwards.” Brendan Foley
Potentially, more of the bronze statues recovered on previous trips–hands, feet and other fragments have been found and are on display in the National Museum in Athens–could be identified through the metal heat map.

Finding more of the statues “would be quite a big contribution to art history and culture but we also expect that in amongst the fragments of the statues will be other amazing things. What kind of things? We can’t even imagine. The possibilities are boundless. This ship sank carrying the finest material that was available in the entire eastern Mediterranean in the first century BC,” Foley said.

Like the mechanism that it carried, the Antikythera is unique for its time period. Its hull planks are some of thickest seen in antiquity, indicating the true size of the ship could be over 200 feet in length, putting it in the same ballpark as HMS Victory, the warship commanded by Admiral Lord Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar–some 1700 years after the Antikythera sailed.

Why was the Anitkythera so large? The only other known ships of the era that were larger were the pleasure barges that the Roman emperor Caligula used to cruise across Lake Nemi. The Antikythera, however, may have been built for a mix of business and pleasure.

One hypothesis is that the Antikythera may both have carried early tourists and freight, thanks to the huge bronze and marble statues it transported as cargo.

If the ship had to carry statues, some up to three meters tall, they’d have to be packed well to prevent damage in transit. It’s been posited that sand or straw could be used as the packing material, but Foley suggests grain could be a more likely candidate: not only would the statues be protected but the grain could be sold on at the Antikythera’s destination, making it a far more economical option.

“The ancient grain carriers weren’t just cargo ships, they were more like RMS Titanic. They were more like luxury cruise liners,” Foley said.

“The couple of extant literary references to grain carriers refer to these floating palaces: mosaic floors, libraries, and amazing cabins, well appointed for the passengers–the 200 or 300 passengers that could be aboard from Rome to Egypt or the Black Sea. They would be sort of the world’s first tourists. As the ship was loaded up with grain, which could take a couple of months, they would tour around and then get back on the ship at the end of the season.”

Any artefacts, such as mosaic pieces, would lend credence to the theory, but more evidence could come from the bones of passengers that died when the ship sank.

“There’s other circumstantial evidence that points to this being the first grain carrier ever discovered, and that’s the luxury goods that were carried onboard and also the presence of skeletal remains of a young woman,” said Foley.

Remains of four people on the wreck have been found so far, and more may still be on the wreck. Should other bones be recovered, they will be subject to a vigorous recovery procedure to make sure there’s no DNA cross-contamination between the dive workers and the bones themselves. All workers on the boat will give cheek swabs to make sure their genetic material can be identified if it ends up on the bones accidentally.

WHOI is now looking for a company that can work with it to analyse the DNA from the bones, perhaps hinting at where those on the ship–be they sailors, high-roller tourists, or slaves–originated from.

The WHOI scientists have already got a handle on other aspects of the travellers’ lives, from their hygiene habits to their diets, thanks to the ceramic storage vessels found on the wreck site. The first Antikythera wreck has already yielded amphora, the “55 gallon drum of antiquity”, table jugs known as lagynos, and unguentaria–the small bottles that would hold medicines, cosmetics or perfumes.

“With all of these types of ceramic artefacts, they’re empty now, but we can take swabs and using police forensic techniques we can pull ancient trace DNA from the ceramic matrix of the original contents, down to the species level,” Foley said.

It’s not uncommon to find ancient ready meals in some of the jars–mixes of legumes or meats, herbs and spices–but the information from the jars can be far more valuable, giving an indication of what commodities were being traded between what locations, enabling archaeologists to get a better insight into the economy of a region than historical sources alone can provide.

“It’s fun for us,” said Foley, “because we feel like we’ve opened up a whole new vista on the past, and we can generate hard data on these early economies. What are they actually importing and exporting, what are they producing, what are they consuming? And it’s all right there in these ostensibly empty jars.”

Even traces of the ancient grain may still be hidden in the sands around the wrecks for those with the right tech to find it. While the grain is long gone, it will have decomposed to leave characteristic starches and structures called phytoliths, which can be detected with a powerful enough microscope.

WHOI’s team returned to the wreck site in the summer of 2015 with their metallic heat maps to begin the process of finding out if the Antikythera has more secrets go give up.

“We’re always analysing the data and updating the data, so this year, those wonderfully precise data from the maps produced by the robots, we’ll have those on iPads. Those iPads will be in housings and we’ll have interactive maps with us as we’re diving on the site,” Foley said.

The divers move through the water, iPad in hand, looking for the points of interest from the heat maps, and checking their position against those locations as they go. They carry handheld metal detectors too, to spot any metal artefacts buried under the seafloor surface, and are accompanied by professional photographers and videographers, as well as using the iPad cameras to gather snaps too.

“All those data at the end of the day are incorporated into the maps. In the best vision we have of this, we’ll have have a data manager incorporating everything we’re doing daily,” said Foley. “One of the goals will be to virtually excavate and re-excavate the site in the computer afterwards, by using our series of images over the trench we’re digging to be able to take it down and refill it in the computer afterwards, so we make sure we’re absolutely documenting every action we take.”

The divers use rebreathers to allow them to investigate the wrecks at depths that would normally prove fatal to humans in a matter of minutes. By keeping the gases they breath in and out inside a closed loop, adding oxygen where necessary and cleaning out the carbon dioxide, divers are able to spend a far longer time on site than they would be able to with conventional scuba gear.

“Putting humans in the water is always the option of last resort because we have to eat, we have to poop, we get tired and we’re really not that efficient underwater. With the rebreather, we increase that efficiency, but it’s still we’re only want to put people down when there’s no other way to do the job,” Foley said.

That’s why today’s underwater excavations will typically rely heavily on robots. They can spend far longer underwater and go to far deeper depths than humans. However, often they’re used as observers, with the most difficult work still done by humans.

Last year, WHOI experimented with a fusion of the two: an Iron Man-like exosuit. The exosuit is a small wearable submarine that keeps the diver’s air at the same atmospheric pressure as it is in the water.

While the WHOI team didn’t use the experimental suit for any work on the wreck site, it was tested out on the vicinity of the Antikythera, and the organisation is now considering whether to plough ahead with a development program.

“You can stay for hours and hours doing work or observing work, and then be winched right back up to the surface,” said Foley. “You won’t have to pay a decompression penalty. You just jump out of the suit and go have a cup of coffee.”

Foley called the oragnisation’s August 2015 diving and excavating trip “the most intensive period of activity on the Antikythera ever.” The results of the landmark excavation are still being revealed.