Inscriptions on the Antikythera Mechanism (1)

This is the first of two posts arising from recent and ongoing work (some of which I’ve been involved in) on the Antikythera Mechanism. Two installments of this project have been published in Nature, in 2006 and 2008. For a partial bibliography see:
A classic (but now very outdated) study is Derek de Solla Price, Gears From the Greeks, 1974.

The Mechanism was a bronze gearwork device for displaying astronomical and chronological cycles and phenomena. It was recovered from the “Antikythera Wreck” c. 1900, and now consists of some 80 or so fragments in the Archeological Museum in Athens. From several considerations, including most usefully some datable coins from Pergamum and Ephesus recovered from the wreck in 1976, the wreck can be dated to after (but probably not very long after) 70 B.C., and its cargo was luxury items (bronze and marble statuary, glassware, and of course our Mechanism itself).

It is generally assumed, with good reason, that the vessel got its cargo from one or more places in Asia Minor and the Aegean, and was heading west, maybe to Italy. The Mechanism, however, turns out, as we recently discovered, to have had an inscribed dial displaying the current date according to the Corinthian calendar, which means that it was made for–if not in fact made in–one of the several regions (Corinth, NW Greece, parts of Sicily, all on the “wrong” side of Antikythera) where this calendar was used. This is obviously puzzling. (I’ll return to the subject of the Corinthian calendar in my second post.)

We’d also really like to know the approximate date of the Mechanism: obviously it predates the wreck, thus can hardly be later than mid-first-century B.C., but was it new then or, like the statues in the cargo, already old? There seems little prospect of getting help with this question from analysis of the (in any case extremely corroded) metal. The astronomical knowledge built into the Mechanism would fit the first century, but we don’t know enough about earlier Hellenistic astronomy to be able to rule out the 2nd century or even the 3rd, though such an early date would go against a lot of current assumptions about what 3rd century B.C. Greek astronomy looked like. The only independent evidence we seem to have for the date is the paleography of the abundant inscriptions which were engraved on practically all the available exterior surfaces plus some supplementary plates.

The best preserved parts of the inscriptions are on surfaces that were protected while the Mechanism was submerged. Some of these were later exposed as pieces broke off or were deliberately removed in the early 20th century, while others are still inside the fragments though we can now at least partly transcribe them through CT (computed tomography). The CT images (not publicly available yet except for a handful of published specimens) probably have limited value for paleography, but a full and detailed set of visible light surface images of all the fragments is now openly accessible on the Web. These take the form of PTM (Polynomial Texture Mapping) files, a wonderful technique developed by HP people for combining a set of digital photos taken from a single viewpoint but lit from multiple directions into a file that can be viewed on screen as if one was moving around the light source. The PTM viewer also can strip the images of the variations of surface color, producing an effect as if the surface has acquired a uniform metallic sheen; this is very useful for inscriptions on corroded metal!

The PTMs of the fragments (with a link to the free downloadable viewer, Windows and Linux but no Mac OS version) are at

Here are some screenshots showing two of the best preserved patches of inscription.

Antikythera Mechanism, detail of front of Fr. C, from PTM AK33a
Antikythera Mechanism, specular enhancement of detail of front of Fr. C
Sample 1: Fragment C, front, part of the parapegma (calendar of risings and settings of constellations). Interlinear spacing about 4.8mm.


Antikythera Mechanism, Fr. 19, from PTM AK01a
Antikythera Mechanism, specular enhancement of Fr. 19
Sample 2: Fragment 19, part of the “back door” inscription describing features of the mechanism. Interlinear spacing about 3.5mm. NB symbols for numeral 6 and ΕΤΟΣ in line 6.


It’s interesting, not to say unsettling, to compare two published expert opinions on the dating of the inscriptions. The first is from Price, Gears from the Greeks, p. 48:

The letter forms are, in the opinion of Professor Benjamin Meritt, characteristic of the first century B.C., or more loosely, of Augustan times. For example, the left vertical of Π is much longer than the right; the vertical strokes of Μ and the horizontal ones of Σ are not parallel. There are tiny serifs at the end of each stroke….

The more recent one is from the Supplementary Notes of the 2006 Nature article by Freeth et al.:

According to Haralambos Kritzas (Director Emeritus of the Epigraphic Museum,
Athens) the style of the writing could date the inscriptions to the second half of the 2nd
Century BC and the beginning of the 1st Century BC, with an uncertainty of about one
generation (50 years). Dates around 150 BC to 100 BC are a plausible range.

We give here a few examples of the epigraphic clues to the dating, but detailed
analysis will be published elsewhere:

Π pi has unequal legs – second half of 2nd century BC
Σ sigma has the two lines not horizontal but at an angle – second half of 2nd century
BC, beginning of 1st century BC
Μ mu has the two lines not vertical but at an angle – second half of 2nd century BC.
There is one M with vertical lines
Y upsilon has the vertical line short – second half of 2nd century BC
Α alpha – just post Alexander
Ζ zeta is written like I with long horizontal lines – 2nd century BC
Ω omega and not like ω – 2nd century BC
Β beta unequal upper circle, compared with the lower circle – old
Ο omicron very small – old
Θ theta has a short line in the middle, in one case a dot – 2nd century BC
Φ phi is arc like – old
Ξ xi middle line short – old

Speaking as a non-epigrapher (as are my colleagues who are working on this project), I’d like very much to know what we can reasonably expect to deduce from the letter forms of the inscriptions, allowing for the uncertainty of provenance and the atypical medium (though perhaps this doesn’t matter since the engraver was obviously careful and skilled).

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18 Responses to Inscriptions on the Antikythera Mechanism (1)

  1. Pingback: The Inscription on the “Antikythera Wreck” | PaleoBabble

  2. Pingback: Ancient Greek Inscription on Famous Artifact | Scribal Practices

  3. Jan-Mathieu Carbon says:

    Many thanks for posting this. It’s of course very tricky to tell much at all from letterforms unless one can do a careful study with abundant possible points of comparison. If your hypothesis in Nature 454 (2008) is correct (and it seems entirely convincing to me), then we would particularly need to look for contemporaneous comparanda from Corinth or its Sicilian colonies. What is more, one should be wary of comparing the paleography of stone inscriptions with metal ones. So parallels in the same medium and from the same geographical area would be particularly desirable. (I will attempt to find some; or perhaps others have already identified relevant parallels?)
    That said, however, the general impressions of a date in the second century BC seem correct, without excluding an earlier or later date. As you rightly note, many of the letterforms appear ‘early’. Perhaps Meritt was to some degree misled by the rather rigid sigma and the omega which is closed by a straight horizontal at the bottom (e.g. in XΩΡΑΣ), since these are the (only?) two conspicuously ‘late’ letters (possibly but not necessarily of first century date).
    May I ask a question, referring back to your 2008 Nature article, as well as to the photographs and drawing of the back dials? My impression is that the letter forms on these inscriptions are somewhat different from those on the plates for which you have provided illustrations here. If the drawings and photographs are accurate, then several points of contrast appear: sigma is much more open and angular (no parallel bars), upsilon has a base bar and is not V-shaped, theta has a single central dot rather than what appears (in most cases) to be a horizontal stroke on the ‘back door’ inscription, and omega is also open at the bottom. All of these could be ‘earlier’ Hellenistic features. Is it possible that we are dealing with several paleographical hands or am I simply being misled by the photographs and drawings?
    Best wishes,

    Mat Carbon

  4. Mat,
    Thanks for excellent suggestions. As I say, we aren’t sure that the Mechanism was made *in* a place that used the Corinthian calendar, but there’s enough likelihood of this to make local comparisons desirable. (I am myself quite incompetent to do this!) Has anyone made a study of the distinctness, or non-distinctness, of letter forms in inscriptions on metal, and is there even a coherent enough body of material to make that kind of study possible?

    The remarks about ‘early’ letter forms are Kritzas’s, not mine, but I am glad though not the least surprised to have confirmation that his appraisal looks more solid than Meritt’s.

    The inscriptions on the back dials have a much smaller letter size, which likely would affect the letter forms. I’d expect that if all the inscriptions were part of the original manufacture, they would have been executed by the same person, but the involvement of more than one hand–surely all around the same time though–can’t be ruled out. Unfortunately most of the back dial inscriptions are read from CT images. Part of the calendar spiral of the upper dial is in fact exposed, but the surface is pretty messed up there so that it’s not easy to read the text, let alone study the letter forms.

  5. Here are a few more specimens.

    (1) From Fr. B, more of the “back door” inscription. I’ve reversed the photo because these are offsets from part of the inscription plate that was once pressed against this surface but is now broken off, leaving behind a mirror image of the text.

    (2) From Fr. A, part of the inscription written in the space around the eclipse prediction spiral, along with a well-preserved “eclipse glyph” from the spiral. In the glyph, the omega-rho monogram stands for ΩΡΑ, and is followed in both lines by a theta. The damaged letter below the second line of the glyph is a rho.

    (3) Fr. 24, an offset (here reflected) of the same eclipse glyph and a bit of the surrounding inscription.

  6. Dave Cox says:

    Is there a translation of what these inscriptions say? Wonderfull and facinating subject. Thanks

  7. PaulIversen says:

    For those of you who were not getting RSS feeds on the “Virtual Seminar of Some Unpublished Inscriptions from Corinth” (and I think now they’ve all been turned off), Alexander also posted a query about the calendar on the Mechanism and its possible relationship to the calendar at Corinth here:

  8. Which RSS feed are you subscribed to, Paul? The comments won’t appear in the normal posts RSS, but they should be in the comments RSS (which seems to work fine for me).

  9. PaulIversen says:


    I was (long ago) signed up for the RSS comments and I got an email a week and half ago saying Alexander posted a comment. But when I posted a response, I didn’t get an email. I thought in the past when I posted a comment myself, I would get an email, but maybe that’s not the case? Or did I somehow manage to unsubscribe myself? I don’t see where, though.

  10. Oh I see. How did you register to receive RSS notifications by email? (If, like me, you did so through the service RSSfwd, I believe they upgraded their software and wiped their database a couple weeks ago. You probably need to re-register.)

  11. Tom Elliott says:

    Paul, Gabby:

    I think the way this works is: if you are a registered author on the blog, you get an email notice anytime someone other than you comments on a post you’ve written. That’s a separate function from the webfeed for comments, which is: , which gives you the most recent 10 comments on any article in the blog.

    You can also get a feed of comments for an individual article by subscribing to the individual page for that post (some browsers will give you an obvious way to do this or you can just append “/feed” — minus the quotation marks — to the url for that page, e.g.:

    Hope that helps,

  12. PaulIversen says:

    Tom and Gabby,

    Tom must be right, as I just received an email for a comment by someone else on Virtual Corinth I. Sorry for the bother.

  13. Volkmar E. Tabery says:

    Dear sirs,

    I’m reading all Your discussions with a lot of interest, cause I’m very taken by this greek mechanism. I wanted to mention though that a person being able to make such an apparatus and describe its functions must have been at least 50 or 60 years of age. So this means it could have been made around 100 BC by somebody writing all the inscriptions from 150 BC. Couldn’t that be true?

    Kind regards.

    Volkmar E. Tabery

  14. ctpax says:

    First of all, sorry about my rude english…
    My interest is, is it possible to find out did they use some screws for assembling device like that, and when they drill holes, are that holes in milimeters of inch standards. Is there any answer like that…

  15. Pingback: November in the calendar of Antiochus of Athens at Roger Pearse

  16. Ernest Richter says:

    I’m not on the level of training comparable to those of you posting, however, The inscription, depending on how made on metal, could theoretically be determined from the metal the impression was made on that presently isn’t visible. Depending on how the inscription was made, in some cases the metal will show the faint impression of what was written. Such technology exists, whether you have access to the technology is a different issue. Perhaps you can determine an additional amount of the inscription that you don’t presently have from the fragments that could reveal what was written, again depending on how the inscription was made would depend o the results. I’m a career technical type completing my B.S. Ed CTE (Career Technical Education, Northern Arizona University in m last class for graduation, anticipating grad school in Claremont, CA in Sept 2013. I already have 8,000 to 10,000 pages of research for the graduate degree that I haven’t yet started school. I have a Th.G. from Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College, renamed to Heartland Baptist Bible College, and I have an A.S. required for the B.S. Ed. M graduate area will be ANE. My knowledge is already known to those that know me.

    Ernest Richter

  17. George Posporelis says:

    Is there an English translation of the faces of both sides of the the device?
    Is there a replacements of the Egyptian glyphs describing the months available?
    I know that the lateral knob rotates the gears but how fast does should that knob rotate & can it be set up to rotate/spin automaticly at the correct speed to produce an accurate display of what the heavens should look like on the device?

  18. Matheu Quess Green says:

    Inscriptions upon the mechanisms ‘case’.
    Thank you.
    Beneath the bezel? Upon the ‘works’?
    Perhaps an credit inscribed which humbly assigns another cultural source as the origin?
    Perdon, my unlearned inquiry.
    I recall familiar designs found in earlier scribbles.
    Might this be a possibility?

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