A-Z Archaeology Films: The Antikythera Mechanism: Decoding an Ancient Greek Mystery

Title: The Antikythera Mechanism: Decoding an Ancient Greek Mystery
Year: 
2008
Length: 14 minutes 
Made by:
  McMillian Publishers Ltd. 
Genre:
 expository 
Authors:
Martin Freeth worked for the BBC, but is now producing short documentary films for Nature and the British Medical Journal as well as corporate clients.

Sadly, the video seems to be broken on The Archaeology Channel, so I watched it at this slightly disturbingly named website:

https://shootingpeople.org/watch/54489/the-antikythera-mechanism-decoding-an-a

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Nothing like starting your film with a citation. So this film appears to be an overview of an article about…you guessed it…The Antikythera Mechanism in Nature. Cool.

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Oooh, nice CG of whirly clockwork things inside the mechanism. Nature must have a capital-B Budget. Of course they do! And the the professional narrator tells us that the video is timely–it tells us about the time table for the earliest Olympics.

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Possibly a relation of Martin Freeth, our filmmaker? Anyway, Tony is one of the authors of the paper, and according to his website, a mathematician and filmmaker.

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No beards yet, but just LOOK at this photo of Derek de Solla Price. The very soul of an academic. He’s a physicist, by the way. So far we have an astronomer (Mike Edmunds, a mathematician and a physicist checking this thing out. Anyway, de Solla Price figured out the basics of how the mechanism worked, but now we have…BIGGER AND BETTER SCIENCE!

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I bet you wish you had a forklift-load of Science. I certainly do. It’s an 8 ton x-ray machine that they brought to Athens to get high-rez data of the mechanism.

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The images that the x-ray produced “provide the basis for many of our revelations.” Heeeey, visualization in action!

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Tony Freeth sits with an engineer of medieval clocks and they explain the dials to us. There’s an eclipse predictor, a moon phase calculator, and the Olympiad dial shows which games are going on that year.

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We are told that the elderly clockmaker (Don Unmin?) will produce a reproduction, but I wasn’t able to find anything about it online.

The Antikythera Mechanism, as an impossibly old, incredibly complicated bit of gear-filled wonder, brings out both the hardcore scientists and the lunatic fringe  for theories about the thing. As such it is fantastic to have a video as an exact explanation of what it is, how we know what it is, and how it works. Would that more journal articles would have accompanying videos that show how the written results came to be. This video shows the interdisciplinary nature of research and how incredible things can happen when you bring together different academic fields, technology, and ancient artifacts. Oh, and large wads of cash.

5/5 – Movies about complicated peer-reviewed articles that also debunk theories about aliens and time travelers and show how ancient people did amazing stuff without extraterrestrial help get full marks from me.

Beard count: 0, zilch. No archaeologists featured. But it was full of older white dudes, natch.

BONUS:

Here is the Antikythera Mechanism…in LEGO.

Archaeology Films A-Z: Ancient Mound Builders: The Marksville State Historic Site

Title: Ancient Mound Builders: The Marksville State Historic Site
Year: 1994
Length: 15 minutes
Made by: Office of State Parks; State of Louisiana, Office of the Lieutenant Governor; Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism; and Louisiana Public Broadcasting
Genre: expository
Authors: Director Gray Warriner graduated with a degree in Geology and Physical Geography from the University of Washington, but abandoned his graduate studies in geology for filmmaking when he encountered a French documentary film crew at Tikal. He returned to UW to teach film for several years and has won several awards.

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Mega creepy opening with fuzzy Native Americans in the background. The wind is howling, the narrator is declarative! We have a lot of fast moving skies, sunsets, clouds!

TIME. IT MOVES CONSTANTLY FORWARD…ALAS, WE CANNOT SEE THE FUTURE…BUT HERE AT THE MOUNDS WE CAN SEE INTO THE PAST….

Well, golly. Archaeologists serve up the second-best, just for you. We get to see a mound now, but still with the dramatic skies. A whole minute into the movie. There is a drawn-out discussion of time and looking into the past, with a zooming timeline of things that mostly white dudes did, because they were the important things, right? We find that written history came to a “grinding halt” before the European explorers.

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While Greeks were building temples, mounds of earth were build across eastern America. Nice superimposition. I wonder if it’s to scale.

The production values in this video are a little bit crazy, lots of zooming images and neon outlines of Confucius. It’s almost like the film editors thought that the material was incredibly dry and so they decided to jazz it up a little bit, add a creepy soundtrack and an Authoritative Narrator.

Rewind though, let’s review glaciation in the Ohio region, and how Ohio was the perfect place for people to settle. Rich resources led to…free time to make cool stuff. I do not always fault a touch of environmental determinism, when taken into consideration of other factors.

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Reenactment of “having free time.”

The Hopewell influence spread to several other communities. When people say things like that, I always things of great clouds of influence, like locusts, descending onto a region.

The narrator asks, Why, why build mounds? And I actually like that they just straight out address something that has been constructed as mysterious and lost knowledge in a pretty straight-forward fashion. Some had burials, some were thought to be astronomically related…but then we back down again, we don’t really know. Fair enough, I suppose (she says, not knowing a whole lot about the Hopewell).

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Hey, archaeologists! Maybe they’ll tell us something useful! Ooh, it’s only a 20-second-long shot and we’re only shown because we didn’t find any evidence of writing. Bummer.

We hear a bit about the Adena, and the cessation of mound-building, but I was happy that the authors of the video didn’t think that the Hopewell went away, but (like the Romans…again with the Classical comparisons) just changed their ways of life.

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Heeeeeeeeey! We’re here to build some mounds!

 

And then, the Mississippians, who built this one place you may have heard of, Cahokia. Nice art, nice reconstructions, I wonder who the original artists were? We hear about the 200,000+ mounds that once covered the eastern US, and about the destruction of 85% of them.

Overall, not an incredible amount of archaeology in this film; most of the information obviously gleaned from years of archaeological investigation is presented as given. This is a film primarily about the mounds, with only a little bit of discussion of daily life, and most of the material culture of the Hopewell (mounds aside) are presented as zoomy-flashy images that go by as uninterpreted “art objects” that show how advanced the Hopewell were. If there is an art-historical approach to examining Native American life, then this would be it. The mounds and the artifacts are presented in compare/contrast style to developments in the Classical world, and while this better situates the timeline, I’m unsure of the continued productivity of constant comparison.

3.5/5