Wednesday 22 October 2014

Back to Antikythera

All that stuff we have: hundreds of pencils, hool-a-hoops, two cars, a cordless drill, is mostly just clutter which makes it more difficult to find the things we need . . . now. There are, however, exceptions to William Morris's advice to "have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful". Some things are more valuable that others, and I don't mean that your Lamborgini trumps my Toyota Yaris. Some artifacts, although useless and grungy, just boggle the mind at the scale and power of human ingenuity.  The most boggling of them all must be the Antikythera mechanism which was found at the bottom of the sea in 1900, having lain there decomposing and accumulating barnacles for the previous 2000 years. The mechanism is a precisely engineered set of gears and cogs designed to predict when the next Olympic Games was due . . . and a whole lot more. It's discovery and the interpretation of how it worked showed that the antient greeks had a level of technical, scientific and engineering competence that came as a huge surprise. But the Mechanism was just the cherry on the cake of the shipwreck, which was loaded with pots and statues, glassware, weaponry, all of superb quality.  The theory is that the ship was on its way to Rome carrying loot from a Greece that was ancient to the Romans. The consignees were not interested in wine or oil or slaves, they wanted things to grace their villas.

Since 1901, the only officially sanctioned dive was carried out by Jacques Cousteau, Dr Lazaros Kolonas and others in 1976. It you are prospecting for gold you go to places which you believe to be rich in the stuff and start to gather evidence that your hypothesis is correct. Now they are going at the Antikythera lode again in collaboration with the Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute. Last month they started mapping the sea bed at the site with extreme precision, using an underwater drone with GPS and cameras. They've already shown that there is more to come.  I'm just so excited.

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