Welcome to this month’s Time Travel Nexus Investigates! At TTNI, we’re playing detective, hunting the TTTs (time-travelling tourists), and attempting to solve some much-talked-about cases of real-life time travel.
So… was a TTT responsible for the world’s most unusual out-of-place artifact, the Antikythera mechanism?
Origin of the claim
In 1900, a team of divers looking for sponges on a rocky ledge, just off the Greek island of Antikythera, near Crete, happened upon an ancient shipwreck. Inside the ship they discovered numerous statues, pottery, jewellery, coins, glassware… and a mysterious mechanism.
All the items were taken to the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens to be analysed. The mechanism was, at first glance, no more than a lump of corroded bronze and wood. The museum staff were much more interested in piecing together all the statues.
As a result, the mechanism went unnoticed for two years. Then, in 1902, archaeologist Valerios Stais examined the lump of bronze and wood and discovered that there was a gear wheel embedded in it. He believed it was an astronomical clock.
But that was impossible. If these items came from Ancient Greece, clocks hadn’t been invented, and wouldn’t be for another 1,000 years. So what was it?
Scholars were stumped, agreeing that it was too complex a device to have been constructed in the same time period as the other items found in the shipwreck.
Despite the controversy, investigations into the object were abandoned until British science historian and Yale University professor Derek J. de Solla Price reopened the case in 1951. Using x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning, Price examined the mechanism. He found it to be a wooden box containing a complex system of 37 meshing bronze gears. These enabled it to follow the movements of the moon and sun and predict eclipses, and make mathematical calculations that would have been near-impossible without it. Analysis of the inscriptions made it clear that the device was constructed in about 80 B.C.
In effect, what Price was looking at was a 2,000-year-old computer.
Nature of the claim
No other device from antiquity contains the sort of gearing that the Antikythera mechanism consists of. In fact, it is not until the 14th century A.D. that similar gearing finally found its way into astronomical clocks. Price wrote:
“Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothing comparable is known from any ancient scientific text or literary allusion. On the contrary, from all we know of science and technology in the Hellenistic Age, we should have felt that such a device could not exist.”
J.H. Brennan, author of Time Travel: A New Perspective, asks the inevitable question:
“Was the Antikythera mechanism carried to Ancient Crete from the future? Or, rather more likely, did a craftsman in the first century B.C. receive a little help and advice from a time traveller?”
Everybody accepts that the Antikythera mechanism is a highly unusual find and remarkable for its complexity—complexity that is not seen until the invention of clockwork devices in the 14th century. Researchers remain unsure exactly who used it and why. Scientists? Astronomers? Teachers? A 2016 study found that the mechanism may have been used by fortune-tellers.
How it was constructed is perhaps the biggest mystery, since nothing else like it has ever been found. How the ancient Greeks accomplished such an incredible and advanced feat of engineering—all knowledge of which was inexplicably lost at some point in antiquity—is unknown to this day.
If you accept that time travel is theoretically possible, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that whoever built the Antikythera mechanism may have been helped and advised by a TTT. Yes, it’s conjecture, but since there are no satisfactory mainstream answers to the questions posed by the Antikythera mechanism, conjecture is all that’s left.
J.H. Brennan says this:
“The theory of advice from a time traveller seems utterly outlandish when we first confront it. Yet nothing we have found in modern physics so far denies the theoretical possibility of time travel and prehistory seems to be peppered with sufficient anachronisms to allow some credence to the idea.”
Brennan’s reference to anachronisms in prehistory refers to the many allegedly out-of-place artifacts, or ‘ooparts’, that have been discovered by archaeologists. Ooparts are artifacts that purport to challenge conventional historical chronology by being “too advanced” for the level of civilisation that existed at the time—like the Antikythera mechanism. Others allegedly show a “human presence” on Earth before humans were known to exist.
However, most of these ooparts are either hoaxes, natural objects that have been misinterpreted as manmade, or artifacts that have been erroneously dated. Examples include the Coso artifact, claimed to be a 1920s spark plug encased in a 500,000-year-old rock now widely accepted as only being a few decades old.
In fact, the term ‘oopart’ is rarely used by historians or scientists. It’s largely confined to cryptozoologists, paranormal enthusiasts, ancient astronaut proponents and Young Earth creationists.
Having said that, the Antikythera mechanism is in a category of its own. It’s not a hoax. It’s not been erroneously dated or misinterpreted. It is incontrovertible evidence that a previously unknown level of computational technology existed in Ancient Greece. Plenty of writers suggest quite simply that the Antikythera mechanism is evidence that our precursors were much more capable than we give them credit for. But there is no other evidence of said capabilities. If technology comparable to the Antikythera mechanism had been found or written about, we would be able to revise our understanding of ancient history. But it hasn’t. So we’re left with an enduring mystery.
Did the person who built the Antikythera mechanism have help from a TTT? Possibly. Possibly not. It depends on your views on the plausibility of real-life time travel, and the idea that TTTs have been touring history, leaving little nuggets of evidence for us to find.
Personally, I don’t think there’s enough conclusive evidence of TTTs in history (they hide themselves well) for me to say that the Antikythera mechanism was influenced by one of them. Just because we haven’t found any other evidence of this level of ancient ingenuity doesn’t mean we won’t. But that’s just my personal opinion. There’s no concrete evidence either way. I must therefore mark this case as ‘open’.
Next month: did a TTT pay a visit to an English country estate in the 1910s?