Archaeologists from the University of Cardiff have finally worked out how to put together a complex mechanism that was found in the 2000 year old ruins of a sunken boat off the coast of Greece. The announcement was impressive because this mechanical calculating device had defied researcher’s attempts to understand it for over a hundred years. The device was used to calculate the position of both the moon and the sun during their orbit, and to calculate eclipses with remarkable accuracy. It is also believed that the device was able to predict the positions of the planets as well. This mechanism is orders of magnitude more complicated than anything that we thought the ancients were capable of. We now know that the Greeks were not just great philosophers, but were technologists as well – they were able to turn their cosmological ideas into working models of the solar system. That’s no mean feat in both scientific and engineering terms.
The findings have forced researchers to reassess their ideas about just how technically advanced the ancient Greeks were. If they were able to calculate orbits with such accuracy it implies a level of sophistication that has only been rediscovered in the last few centuries. It makes me consider just how far we fell in the intervening Christian period. The dark ages were not just a period where civilisation took a back-step into an age of ignorance – it was an age so obsessed with religious orthodoxy that no possibility existed for societies to raise themselves out of their benighted state. This discovery highlights just how much was lost during that period. The Greeks had a better understanding of how the world worked than anyone up to the time of Newton and the enlightenment. What could have caused us to lose what must have been a fantastically useful body of knowledge?
The lack of a printing press made it hard to disseminate ideas, but knowledge that valuable wouldn’t have existed in a vacuum. The techniques employed would have been arrived at by groups of artisans or engineers over a long period of research – the knowledge would have been in the possession of many people, not few. So how was it lost? We’ll probably never know. My guess would be that it was at odds with some piece of religious orthodoxy, and was therefore actively ignored or suppressed. But one thing is sure – orthodoxy of any kind (especially the religious kind) is anathema to progress, and can easily lead to a dark age of thousands of years.
We should not be complacent about our secular society’s stability and progress. This ancient computer makes it all too clear that what has been gained can even more easily be lost.