A computer in antiquity would seem to be an anachronism, like Athena ordering takeout on her cellphone. But a century ago, pieces of a strange mechanism with bronze gears and dials were recovered from an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Greece. Historians of science concluded that this was an instrument that calculated and illustrated astronomical information, particularly phases of the Moon and planetary motions, in the second century B.C.

The Antikythera Mechanism, sometimes called the world's first computer, has now been examined with the latest in high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography. A team of British, Greek and American researchers was able to decipher many inscriptions and reconstruct the gear functions, revealing, they said, "an unexpected degree of technical sophistication for the period."

The researchers, led by Tony Freeth and Mike G. Edmunds, both of the University of Cardiff, Wales, are reporting the results of their study in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

They said their findings showed that the inscriptions related to lunar-solar motions and the gears were a mechanical representation of the irregularities of the Moon's orbital course across the sky, as theorized by the astronomer Hipparchos. They established the date of the mechanism at 150-100 B.C.

The Roman ship carrying the artifacts sank off the island of Antikythera around 65 B.C. Some evidence suggests that the ship had sailed from Rhodes. The researchers speculated that Hipparchos, who lived on Rhodes, might have had a hand in designing the device.

In another article in the journal, a scholar not involved in the research, Francois Charette of the University of Munich museum, in Germany, said the new interpretation of the Antikythera Mechanism "is highly seductive and convincing in all of its details." It is not the last word, he concluded, "but it does provide a new standard, and a wealth of fresh data, for future research."

Historians of technology think the instrument is technically more complex than any known device for at least a millennium afterward.

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