This week, learn the story of how analytical instrumentation from Metrohm helps underwater archaeology locate hidden treasures beneath the seafloor.
Antikythera Mechanism: a machine lost to time
One of the most fascinating items ever salvaged from an ancient shipwreck is the so-called «Antikythera Mechanism». More than 2000 years old, this magnificent piece of mechanical engineering forced the scientific community to rewrite the history of science as it became clear that its unknown maker must have possessed knowledge and skills that were believed to simply not exist in the 1st century BC.
The Antikythera Mechanism was a complex and highly precise lunar and solar calendar that could also predict solar and lunar eclipses as well as the future dates of the Panhellenic Games. The complexity and precision of this machine inspired not only scientists but also Hublot, the Swiss brand famous for their luxury watches. Not only did Hublot recreate the Antikythera Mechanism in a wristwatch but they also started their own underwater archaeology program. This project of Hublot is fascinating—and we from Metrohm are part of it on every dive.
The device was retrieved from an ancient shipwreck (70 BC) found off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901. Since then, researchers have tried to get to the bottom of its mysteries. Dated to approximately 100 BC, the Antikythera Mechanism was a shockingly complex piece of machinery, the likes of which were not seen elsewhere for at least another millennium.
One of the challenges faced by underwater archeology is the fact that the cargo and debris of ancient shipwrecks is often randomly scattered across vast areas on the seafloor and also often covered by sediments. Because only fragments of the mechanism have been found and recovered, retrieving the missing pieces of the Antikythera Mechanism would be a scientific sensation.
Figure 2. Location where the Antikythera Mechanism was found in 1901 at a shipwreck in Greece.
As divers can only operate for very limited time spans at depths below 50 meters, drones are needed to investigate larger areas on the seafloor at such depths. Hublot’s engineers have built drones for this purpose, known as «Bubblots», and have equipped them with miniaturized voltammetric measuring stands from Metrohm.
«With a metal detector, all you get is «beep-beep-beep», which means there is metal around. However, in a bronze statue, there is copper, there is tin, and you have to detect the oxides of them, the exact kind of material you are facing. We have decided for Metrohm, because you are the most competent for the measuring technology we need in our drones.»
The Bubblots are utilized to perform real-time analyses of the seawater for unusual concentrations of dissolved metal salts typically associated with corroding bronze artefacts. Thus, the systematic and highly selective investigation of larger areas of seafloor for historical bronze artefacts becomes feasible.
Figure 3. Hublot’s underwater drones, known as «Bubblots», and the voltammetric measuring stand from Metrohm.
Voltammetry to the rescue
Due to its selectivity regarding different metals and their oxidation states, voltammetry is ideally suited for such investigations, as it is also a very fast and robust technique. In the case of Hublot’s drones, results are obtained in a few seconds and this information can be immediately processed.
«We use this Metrohm instrument for voltammetric measurements. We take a water sample and do a live measurement of the aspirated water. The voltammetric measurement takes only a few seconds. This is enough to give us an idea of the different metals present in the solution. This allows us to do highly selective measurements very fast to cover different regions of the archaeological site.»
For a selection of free Metrohm Application Notes related to voltammetric measurements in seawater, visit our website!
Figure 5. One of Metrohm’s disposable screen printed electrodes (SPEs) utilized in Hublot’s drone analysis of the seafloor.
Giving the Antikythera Mechanism a second life
The maker of this mechanism was far ahead of his time. He must have had skills and possessed scientific knowledge that are mind-boggling even today. The watchmakers from Hublot were inspired by this to a very special project: they rebuilt the Antikythera Mechanism in a wristwatch.
«The original Antikythera Mechanism has the size of a shoe box. Reducing the size of the mechanism and putting it into a wrist watch was not so easy. Because the Antikythera Mechanism was not a clock, it was a machine with a driving crank to show the position of the moon and the sun in relation to the stars at any given date. The absolute dream is to find the missing parts of the machine. But the debris is hidden below the seafloor, covered by sediments, one meter, sometimes two meters.»
Figure 6. The Antikythera Mechanism miniaturized and captured in a Hublot wristwatch.
We are glad to support Hublot’s archaeological mission with our analytical instruments and our expertise in chemical analysis. Metrohm wishes the Hublot team all the best.
Visit our website to learn more
about this fascinating project and to discover more related applications from Metrohm
Post written by Dr. Alyson Lanciki, Scientific Editor at Metrohm International Headquarters, Herisau, Switzerland.