The Discovery that (Eventually) Stunned the Archaeological World

In 1900 Greek sponge divers discovered what is perhaps one of the most advanced artifacts ever found from the ancient world. While seeking shelter from a storm in the Mediterranean, the sailors steered their boat leeward of the small Greek island of Antikythera. 

After weathering the storm, they decided to make the most of the diversion and dive for sponges in deep water just off the coastline at a spot called Point Glyphadia. At 42 meteres down, they didn’t find sponges, but one of the largest and most well preserved shipwrecks of classical antiquity.  

Scattered on the seafloor were eleganty scultped arms, legs and busts as well as a plethora of other artifacts, which included marble & bronze statues, pottery, glassware, jewelry and coins. Archaeologists eventually determined that the ship was a large merchant ship, very possibly headed for the Roman seaport of Ostia where goods and treasures from Greece poured into Rome. Coins recovered by the famous French oceanographer, Jacques Couseau, helped archaeologists determine that the ship likely sank sometime in the first century B.C.. 

Among the hundreds of arfifacts recovered from the ship, was a heavily corroded clump of wood and metal. As the wood dried, the conglomerate cracked open revealing gears and wheels inside. The peculiar gears piqued the interest of the archaeologists in 1902, but it wasn’t until around 70 years later until scholars began to peer deeper inside the inner workings of the artifact. In 1971 British science historian, Derek de Solla Price and Greek nuclear physicist Charalampos Karakalos made X and gamma-ray images of the object. What they saw was an incredibly complex mechanism containing at least 30 gears, cogs and wheels. The device became known as the Antikythera Mechanism (or Antikythera device). 

The Antikythera Mechanism (Fragment A – front); visible is the largest gear in the mechanism, approximately 14 centimetres (5.5 in) in diameter (Wikipedia)

Unlike Howard Carter’s remarkable discovery of King Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, the discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism did not garner much attention when it was first discovered. 

Both Price and Karakalos knew that it was some kind of complex mechanical device, but they were not aware of its true significance or function. They eventually determined that the device was some sort of astronomical computer designed to predict the motion of the moon and/or planets. In 1974 Price published a detailed 70 page account of the mechanism which really put it on the map for the first time in the archaeological world. Scholars, scientists and archaeologists were beginning to take notice that the mechanism was truly remarkable and nearly two millennia ahead of its time!

But what exactly was it? And what was it designed to do?  

What Archaeologists & Scholars Have Learned About the Antikythera Mechanism Since Its Discovery 

As noted above, the Antikythera Mechanism was discovered over 119 years ago in 1900. The technology of the early 20th Century was’t advanced enough to peer inside the heavily corroded artifact until 1971 with the X and gamma-ray images made by Price and Karakalos. In 2006 a detailed history of the mechanism’s discovery, history and function was published in the journal, Nature. According to the author, Jo Marchant, a major breakthrough in understanding the device came when Andrew Wright, curator of the Museum of Science in London, received parts of a sixth century Byzantine sundial containing gears and cogs, brought to him by a Lebanese man [1]. For years Wright had been studying Price’s account of the device in which he found several anomolies. With the additional information he gleaned from the Byzantine sundial, Wright was able to clearly see the errors of Price’s account of the device. 

According to Marchant, “Wright ended up working with Allan Bromley, a computer scientist at Sydney University in Australia who had become interested in the Antikythera Mechanism around the same time. Bromiley wanted to study the machine with X-ray tomography, which assembles a sheaf of cross-sections of its subject” [2]. 

With a more intricate picture and deeper understanding of the device’s components, Wright was able to reconstruct a fully functioning replica. From the work of Wright, Bromiley and many others, Antikythera researchers analyzed the number of wheel cogs, the wheel ratios as well as other components and determined that the device was able to produce a motion that closely mimics the varying motion of the Moon around the Earth, as described by the 2nd Century B.C., Greek astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus of Rhodes (sometimes called Hipparchus of Nicaea)

19th Cent. artist’s conception of Hipparchus observing the sky from Alexandria in Egypt

Hipparchus was the first scholar to describe the motion of the Moon around the Earth mathematically, so whoever designed the Antikythera Mechanism would have been intimately familiar with his mathematical and lunar theories. Some scholars have even proposed that the device could have been made under the direct supervision of Hipparchus himself. Historical references from the Roman writer Cicero seem to imply this. Cicero studied in Rhodes and records that a he saw a device that could predict the motions of the planets and the moon.

Andrew Wright’s proposed reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism.

  The discovery of the Antikythera Device raises some interesting questions. How did ancient people create such a complex mechanism so long ago? The device reveals a level of technical complexity and skill that wasn’t seen until the invention of the clock in 13th Century Medieval Europe. On another level, it also has elements that closely resemble the first mechanical computers that were not invented until the 19th Century by the English mathematician, Charles Babbage. 

The Difference Engine – an early computing mechanism created by Charles Babbage in the 19th Century (Wikipedia)

The discovery and understanding of the device also parallels discoveries in modern molecular biology and our understanding of irreducibly complex features that have been discovered in the cell. Archaeologists have found artifacts much less complex than the Antikythera Mechanism and have correctly inferred that they were artifacts designed by human intelligence. So why then do many scientists today propose that the complex designs found in nature have no Intelligent Designer behind them? 

The purpose of this article is to simply posit the fact that if archaeologists can infer human design from artifacts (even very simple ones), then biologists and other scientists as well, can legitimately infer an Intelligent Designer from “artifacts” we discover in nature. 

First let us consider what exactly an artifact is according to archaeology, and how it is that archaeologists are able to distinguish human artifacts from the surrounding matrix of natural objects like rocks, soil, etc…

WHAT IS AN ARTIFACT? HOW DO ARCHAEOLOGISTS DETECT DESIGN?

Native American projectile point (or arrowhead)

Depending on which source you consult there are some common elements in defining what is an artifact. A working defnition of an Archaeological Artifact is anything that has been made or modified by humans. Artifacts can be anything from fragments of flint or chert as the detritus from making projectile points or arrowheads — to something as complex as the Great Pyramid of Giza; to the remains of the incredibly beautiful marble structure of the Parthenon in Athens. Archaeological artifacts may also be thought of in a much broader fashion, to include simple or complex patterns archaeologists discover on the landscape of the earth itself. 

The “Condor” One of nearly 70 Nazca Lines in Peru as seen from high altitude. The Nazca lines were first recorded by the Spanish explorer Pedro Cieza de Leon in 1553

The most recent advancement in archaeology is the use of high altitude photography and imaging with a project called GlobalXplorer, which launched in 2016. GlobalXplorer was the idea of Egyptologist Sara Parcak currently working at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. Parcak utilizes high definition (HD) satellite imaging, alongside computer algorithims to locate previously unknown archaeological sites. The principle of GlobalXplorer is to discover patterns in otherwise stark and desolate landscapes, whether those landscapes are heavily forrested jungles or arrid deserts. 

Image from GlobalXplorer showing patterns in the desert revealing ancient Egyptian structures buried beneath the sand

Utilizing information she has gained from the images, Parcak has helped locate 17 potential pyramids in Egypt, 3,100 forgotten settlements and 1,000 lost tombs. Her goal in GlobalXplorer is to utilize crowdsourcing, enlisting anyone with the internet to help discover previously uknown archaeological sites. Parcak was able to build and launch GlobalXplorer by winning the 2016 TED Prize.

“ANTIKYTHERA DEVICES” IN NATURE

Perhaps some of the most remarkable artifacts of design are found in nature and in particular biology. In his book, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (1999), Philosopher and mathematician, William A. Dembski quotes Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences in the Feb 2008 issue of Cell. Alberts states: 

The entire cell can be viewed as a factory that contains an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each of which is composed of large protein machines… Why do we call the large protein assemblies that underlie cell function machines? Precisely because, like machines invented by humans to deal efficiently with the macroscopic world, these protein assemblies contain highly coordinated moving parts [3]. 

In 1996 Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania published a controversial and groundbreaking book titled, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. In his book Behe picks up where Charles Darwin left off. When he wrote On the Origin of the Species in 1859, neither Darwin or any scientists in his day understood the inner-functions of the cell. Similar to archaeologists trying to understand the Antikythera Device, the technology of Darwin’s day was not advanced enough to peer inside the cell. To Darwin it was a “black box” that he believed would eventually be explained by the twin evolutionary processes of mutation and natural selection. However, as Behe points out in his book, the cell as well as many other biological entities contain elements which are irreducibly complex, and cannot be explained by blind and random natural processes. Behe explains: 

“Modern science has found that, far from the simple ‘protoplasm’ that many nineteenth-century scientists believed, the cell contains ultra-sophisticated molecular machines. The assumption that the basis of life is simple has turned out to be the polar opposite of the case. Now that modern science has unveiled the surprising complexity of molecular life, how can we decide if Darwin’s theory can account for it?” [4]

In his book Origin of Species Darwin confessed, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” [5] 

Since Darwin wrote those words, and as biologists have now peered deep inside the cell with the help of electron microscopes and other advanced imaging technologies, an indredibly complex world of the cell, DNA and information has come into clear view. Philosopher of science, Stephen Meyer states that: 

Over the last 25 years, biologists have discovered an exquisite world of nanotechnology within living cells, complex circuits, sliding clamps, energy-generating turbines and miniature machines. For example, bacterial cells are propelled by tiny rotary engines called flagellar motors that rotate at speeds up to 100,000 rpm. These engines look as if they were designed by the Mazda corporation, with many distinct mechanical parts (made of proteins) including rotors, stators, O-rings, bushings, U-joints and drive shafts [6] 

In his book, Darwin’s Black Box, Behe focuses specifically on the bacterial flagellar motor and shows from a biochemical standpoint that this microscopic marvel is irreducibly complex and bears the marks of having been designed by a Mind — not blind, random chance. 

The Bacterial Flagellar motor which reveals irreducible complexity and design (PCAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States).

Critics of Intelligent Design as well as those who are strongly against making inferences to a Designer usually do so from a prior commitment to methodological naturalism or on causal grounds. Admittedly, archaeology and biology are quite different sciences with different aims, however they both share in the fundamental search for ultimate causation. But, as philosopher Jay Wesley Richards points out: 

“…we infer design every day, both in ordinary life and in scientific disciplines such as archaeology, forensics, fraud detection, cryptography, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). What Behe called irreducible complexity, Dembski calls specified complexity. If something has specified complexity, it is highly improbable, has high information content, and conforms to an independent pattern. Again, the only known causes for such things are intelligent agents, so there is no special pleading in inferring design in natural sciences like biology. Dembski argues that when we conclude that something has the property of specified complexity, we are justified in inferring that it is designed by an intelligent agent [6].

Two Kinds of Causes: Natural & Intelligent [7] 

At the end of the day, whether it is an archaeologist searching for a lost Mayan city in the Amazon jungle, looted tombs in the Nile Delta, using Satellite imaging, or a biochemist searching for the source of the epi-genome, the search ultimate causality is one and the same. Only two kinds of causes ultimately matter – either intelligent causation or natural causation. 

One doesn’t have to have a PhD in microbiology, archaeology or particle physics to understand the difference. Even a child can tell the difference between something that is intelligently caused and something that is caused naturally. 

INTELLIGENT CAUSATION  (Rock Sculpture of Decebalus) in Romania

 

NATURAL CAUSATION (Slot canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ)

ENDNOTES 

[1] Jo Marchant, “In Search of Lost Time,” in Nature (Vol. 444) 30 November 2006, pg. 536.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 2009), 146-7. 

[4] Michael J. Behe, “Darwin’s Breakdown: Irreducible Complexity and Design at the Foundation of Life,” in William A. Dembski & James M. Kushiner, Eds., Signs of Intelligence: Understanding Intellegent Design (Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, MI, 2001), pg. 93. 

[5] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 6th Edition (New York: New York University Press, 1988), pg. 154. 

[6]. Jay Wesley Richards, “Proud Obstacles and a Reasonable Hope: The Apologetic Value of Intelligent Design,” in Dembski & Kushiner, Eds., Signs of Intelligence: Understanding Intelligent Design (Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, MI, 2001), pp. 55-6 [emphasis mine].

[7] Of course no discussion of Intelligent design in nature (the Teleological Argument, and/or Natural theology) would be complete without referencing Aristotle’s four causes, Aquinas’s Fifth Way, or William Paley’s “Watchmaker Argument.” Space here does not allow me to go into a fuller treatment of these important principles. For a more detailed treatment of this discussion and in-house debate/dialogue see, Edward Feser’s, excellent article in “Teleology: A Shoppers Guide” in Philosophia Christi  Vol. 12, No. 1, 2010 pp. 142-159; and “Do Biological Clocks Revive Paley’s Watchmaker Argument?” – see also “The Design Argument: Aquinas vs. Paley,” at www.richardghowe.com