In Beijing, Antikythera Greek Shipwreck Exhibit Lures Crowds

FILE - Fragments of the 2,100-year-old Antikythera Mechanism at Greece's National Archaeological Museum. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

With the two countries sharing so much in ancient culture, China and Greece are being brought together closer with the swap of two exhibits, with a display from The Antikythera Shipwreck and the mystery of whether an ancient computer was discovered piquing interest in Beijing.

China’s Central Archaeological Council has approved the extension of the National Archaeological Museum’s exhibition of the shipwreck until Feb. 14, 2019 after was opened on Sept. 14 this year by Maria Andreadaki-Vlazaki, General Secretary of Culture, featuring more than 350 ancient masterpieces, among them a copy of the famous Antikythera mechanism.

On opening day, approximately 16,000 visitors attended the Antikythera Shipwreck exhibition, a number that has been matched or exceeded daily since then and garnered extensive coverage in as the attraction that has gotten more attention and visitors than any other at the spot.

In Athens, meanwhile, the “twin” Chinese exhibition From the Forbidden City: Imperial Apartments of Qianlong, also inaugurated on Sept. 14, at the Acropolis Museum will also run until Valentine’s Day next year.

The Chinese have been as fascinated as the rest of the world and visitors to Greece to see the famous exhibit of artifacts taken from the wreck discovered in 1900 off the island of Antikythera, about halfway between the southern coast of the Peloponnese on the mainland and Crete.

The importance of the find was highlighted in a 2007 article in The New Yorker by John Seabrook, reprinted recently by the magazine, coinciding with the display in China and after an exhibit at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens had wowed visitors at the genius of an ancient mechanism showing how advanced the Greeks were in mathematics, even in a way anticipating the modern computer.

As he wrote, the discovery was at first baffling: a mysterious bronze lump with a system of gears inside, leading to wondering whether it was an astrolabe, used by astronomers and navigators to measure the inclined position in the sky of a celestial body, a mechanical planetarium or even the legendary Sphere of Archimedes.

Seabrook wrote a piece Fragmentary Knowledge indicating a then-new theory had arisen: it was the world’s first computer, backing suspicions the ancient Greeks were capable of more complicated devices than thought.

In 2005, a British eight-ton X-ray machine called Bladerunner was taken to the archaeological museum in Athens where Tony Freeth, a British mathematician and filmmaker and member of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project was waiting.

As big as it was, the X-tek machine was sophisticated and precise and able to look at the mechanism through centuries of slime and corrosion that couldn’t be fully removed without damaging the discovery.

Freeth was joined by a team that included Xenophon Moussas, Director of the Astrophysics Laboratory at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

The object of their attention and affection was the shoebox-sized lump with what appeared to be a wooden exterior and inside some fused bronze pieces. It wasn’t until 1902, two years after the find, that archaeologist Spyridon Staïs noticed inscriptions, in ancient Greek, engraved on what looked like a bronze dial and researchers found triangular gear teeth of different sizes, mimicking mechanical clocks not in use until 1400 years later.

In 1958, Derek de Solla Price, a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, went to Athens to examine the mechanism he indeed thought was an ancient, rudimentary computer that could calculate astronomical events such as coming full moons.

The piece said he realized the inscriptions on the large dial were calendrical markings indicating months, days, and the signs of the zodiac and that there pointers, now missing, that represented the sun and the moon and possibly the planets, moving around the dial.

In 1971, he and a Greek radiographer, Dr. C. Karakalos, were permitted to make the first X-rays of the mechanism, producing two-dimensional images showing almost all the remaining gear teeth Price said showed how remarkable it was.

The Mechanism “requires us to completely rethink our attitudes toward ancient Greek technology,” he wrote, and later added, “It must surely rank as one of the greatest mechanical inventions of all time.”

He added that it was “a bit frightening to know that just before the fall of their great civilization the ancient Greeks had come so close to our age, not only in their thought, but also in their scientific technology,” but it drew little attention the device was downplayed.

The National Museum in Athens thought it of little significance either and officials there were surprised when American physicist Richard Feynman, one of the greatest in the field, visited in 1980 and said the mechanism “is some kind of machine with gear trains, very much like the inside of a modern wind-up alarm clock.”

Astronomy was vital for the ancient Greeks as a key form of knowledge, for marking time and agricultural use and navigation.

Xenophon Moussas, a Greek astronomer who was part of the research project, said ancient Greeks learned to recognize patterns and serial events in the movements of the stars, and to use them to tell time and to predict future astronomical events. “It was a way of keeping track not of time as we think of it,” he told me, “but of the movement of the stars—a deeper time.” Hence the device’s importance.

British researcher Derek Price, who spent much of his life studying the device, thought whoever invented it was “some unknown ingenious mechanic,” with speculation it might have been Hipparchus, the greatest of ancient Greek astronomers who is believed to have invented trigonometry. But no one knows yet, a mystery the Chinese find irresistible too.