What should a Bayesian infer from the Antikythera Mechanism?

That is the early “computer,” remember?:

Who made the famed Antikythera Mechanism, the astronomical calculator that was raised from an ancient shipwreck near Crete in 1901?

The complex clocklike assembly of bronze gears and display dials predates other known examples of similar technology by more than 1,000 years. It accurately predicted lunar and solar eclipses, as well as solar, lunar and planetary positions.

For good measure, the mechanism also tracked the dates of the Olympic Games. Although it was not programmable in the modern sense, some have called it the first analog computer.

We now learn that the calendar of this mysterious device begins in 205 B.C.  The key point, in my view, is that we have discovered no other comparable machine from antiquity or any other era other than modern times.  It took us until 2006 to even understand what the device was supposed to do, using advanced tomography, and we had been holding it since 1901.

So what to infer?  The first option is that this device was a true outlier, standing sui generis above its time.  Cardiff University professor Michael Edmunds “described the device as “just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind””.

As an artifact that is true, but is that so likely in terms of broader history?  It is pure luck that we fished this thing out of the Mediterranean in 1901.  (By the way, further dives are planned to search for more parts of it.)  The alternative possibility is that antiquity had many more such exotic devices, which have remained unreported, at least in the manuscripts which have come down to us.  That would imply, essentially, that we don’t have a very good idea of what antiquity was like.  In my view that is the more rational Bayesian conclusion.  It is more likely than thinking that we just lucked out to find this one unique, incredible device.  To put it another way, if you found some organic life on a traveling comet, you ought to conclude there is more of that life, or something related, somewhere else.

And to me, the Antikythera Mechanism does not sound like a “lone genius” kind of device: “The gear teeth were in the form of equilateral triangles with an average circular pitch of 1.6 mm, an average wheel thickness of 1.4 mm and an average air gap between gears of 1.2 mm.” (Wikipedia)  That suggests it was made by some kind of regular industrial process.  It also had some sophistications which modern Swiss watches do not.

Given this Bayesian conclusions, which other strange claims stand a decent chance of being true of antquity?  Which other surprises await us?

I find this an interesting passage: “the mysterious device was already pretty ancient by the time it went down some time around 85BC to 60BC with a ship carrying a bride and her dowry, io9 reports…”  You don’t find a lot of people carrying around a lot of ancient PCs today, so might there have been an Antikythera Great Stagnation way back when?  I think maybe so.

Here is a Lego model of the device.  Here is an introductory YouTube video.  Here is Wikipedia on the Antikythera Mechanism, a very good entry.

I owe thanks to Vic Sarjoo for pointers and Robin Hanson for a useful conversation on this topic.


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