In the news recently: the Antikythera Mechanism, a cunning ancient device which, it turns out, could predict planetary positions and eclipses. It was first discovered around a hundred years ago, but it has always been little-known. Partly, I’m sure, because of the domination of Greek archaeology by classisists and historians. The Antikythera mechanism is unique, and its purpose unclear without careful analysis, so it’s not too surprising that for most of the time since its discovery it lurked, little-known, in an Athens museum.
Around 1980, Richard Feynman wrote about the mechanism, in a letter to his family:
Amongst all those art objects [in the museum] there was one thing so entirely different and strange that it is nearly impossible. It was recovered from the sea in 1900 and is some kind of machine with gear trains, very much like the inside of a modern wind-up alarm clock. The teeth are very regular and many wheels are fitted closely together. There are graduated circles and Greek inscriptions. I wonder if it is some kind of fake. There was an article on it in the Scientific American in 1959.
I asked the archaeologist lady about the machine in the museum—whether other similar machines, or simpler machines leading up to it or down from it, were ever found—but she hadn’t heard of it. So I met her … at the museum to show it to her. She required some explanation from me why I thought such a machine was interesting … but after a bit she believed maybe it was striking, and she took me to the back rooms of the museum—surely there were other examples, and she would get a complete bibliography. Well, there were no other examples, and the complete bibliography was a list of three articles (including the one in the Scientific American)—all by one man, an American from Yale!*
It’s not that surprising that the Antikythera mechanism was little-studied for a long period. It’s an anomaly, at least as far as surviving records go, and anomalies are often ignored if they can’t be made to match up with everything else. It’s disappointing to me, in fact, that often the only people to treat anomalous objects seriously are pseudoarchaeologists, who nearly always come up with ridiculous conclusions. Pseudoarchaeologists are often condescending to the past in their own special way – “these people were too primitive to do this! Aliens must have helped them!” – but in many ways traditional archaeology can be just as condescending, by sometimes hunting things it does not understand out of the way, because they’re inconvenient or too complex to understand.
* published in What Do You Care What Other People Think?, the second book of Feynman’s memoirs.