A PORTABLE COSMOS: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World

Alexander Jones

OUP (2019) h/b 312pp £25.49 (ISBN 9780190931490)

The Antikythera Mechanism is perhaps the most famous scientific artefact to have survived from classical antiquity, and Alexander Jones’ fascinating book simultaneously presents a microhistory of the object itself, and a broader enquiry into the scientific and technological context within which it was created, that are indispensable to anyone with more than a passing interest in ancient science and technology.

The book opens with a brief preface that takes issue with the common misconception that the mechanism is something exceptional: by the close of the volume, it will have been made apparent to the reader that it was thoroughly entrenched in both theoretical and practical scientific enquiries of its time. The first two chapters are written in a lively style that calls to mind the kind of historical and archaeological adventure stories one might find in an airport bookshop, with plenty of strong personalities and the inevitable clashes over differing and competing theories. 

Chapter 1: ‘The Wreck and its Discovery’ provides a detailed, almost blow-by-blow, account of the discovery of what is presumed to have been a sizeable merchant vessel off the coast of the island of Aigila in 1900, the initial attempts that were made to salvage its cargo, and the transfer of what was salvaged to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Chapter 2: ‘The Investigations’ covers the efforts that have been made over the course of the century since the initial discovery to examine, interpret, and reconstruct the mechanism, with suggested definitive conclusions being periodically challenged and revised as more fragments came to light or existing fragments were re-examined with more advanced investigative techniques. Chapter 3: ‘Looking at the Mechanism’ proceeds methodically through each of the surviving fragments, building on the information presented in the previous chapter, in order to get a sense of what someone saw when they looked at the mechanism in its entirety in antiquity.

The remaining chapters seek to elucidate different aspects of the mechanism while contextualising it within the history of science and technology. Chapter 4: ‘Calendars and Games’ covers the range of calendars that were in use not just in Greece but around the ancient Mediterranean and informed the mechanism’s calibration (it uses the Corinthian calendar). Chapter 5: ‘Stars, Sun and Moon’, Chapter 6: ‘Eclipses’, and Chapter 7: ‘The Wanderers’ proceed methodically through different aspects of ancient astronomy, drawing on Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Greek schools of thought, and in each case contextualise and then explain different aspects of the mechanism and its workings. Chapter 8: ‘Hidden Workings’ returns to the mechanism itself and considers it in relation to ancient mechanics. Chapter 9: ‘Afterward: The Meaning of the Mechanism’ locates it in the context of the history of ancient astronomical mechanisms, comparing and contrasting it with the examples recorded in ancient literature, and ultimately argues that, while it would certainly have been unusual, it was not necessarily as unique in antiquity as it appears to have been today. Finally, there is an indispensable glossary of the technical terminology used throughout. 

A Portable Cosmos is both an excellent focussed case study of an individual object and a comprehensive broader treatment of the relevant aspects of ancient science and technology. It is beautifully and thoughtfully illustrated, with numerous diagrams and photographs placed strategically throughout, not just of the mechanism but of various other relevant ancient objects such as calendar and other almanac-style parapêgma inscriptions, manuscripts, astrolabes etc. I shall definitely be adding it to the syllabi of my ‘Nature and the Natural World in Antiquity’ and ‘Ancient Technology’ courses, and I recommend that other instructors do the same.

Jane Draycott

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