National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Greek "Computer" Tracked Ancient Olympics, Other Games

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 30, 2008
 
A Greek machine sometimes called the world's first computer could have helped sports fans track the cyclical schedule of ancient athletic contests—including the Olympic games, new research reports.

The Antikythera mechanism, which dates to around 150 to 100 B.C., is a complex amalgamation of bronze gears, dials, and text inscriptions that was created perhaps a thousand years before the next known device of similar sophistication.

Though many of its functions remain mysterious, previous research found that the device tracked and displayed the date, a 19-year calendar, and the positions of the sun and moon.

The mechanism even predicted eclipses—though with limited accuracy—using an 18-year eclipse cycle, called the Saros cycle, that was known to Babylonian astronomers centuries before the mechanism was built. (Read how the ancient Chinese predicted eclipses.)

Now members of an international collaboration called the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project have used high-resolution 3-D scans to examine "slices" of the mechanism's 82 fragments.

The scans allowed the team to read previously hidden text inscriptions that showed an unexpected feature: a dial for tracking the timing of the Panhellenic games.

"It really stood out as something that is not astronomy," said team member Alexander Jones, a classicist at New York University.

"It has nothing to do with the heavens or the planets. It's a clear sign that this thing wasn't just [for scientific observation], it was to relate human institutions and human time to the heavens."

Let the Games Begin

In 1901 sponge divers recovered a corroded, calcified lump about the size of a laptop computer amid the treasures of a first-century B.C. Roman merchant ship that sunk near the Greek island of Andikíthira.

Although the mechanism's moving parts no longer work, x-ray scans allowed scientists to piece together its layers of gear wheels and read some of the inscriptions around its dials.

The latest scans revealed previously unseen glyphs, including the word "Nemea," which refers to the site of the Nemean games, part of the Panhellenic games.

Further investigation found the place names of the three other great sporting events—Isthmia (Kórinthos, or Corinth), Pythia (Delphi) and Olympia—inscribed around a four-part dial.

The British Museum's Judith Swaddling, author of The Ancient Olympic Games, is unaffiliated with the Antikythera mechanism research group. She called the discovery of the so-called Olympiad dial fascinating.

"The major Greek games were arranged so that there was at least one each year, and there were many minor meets, too," she said.

"Greek life very much revolved around sport—hence scenes from sporting events were depicted on drinking cups and other vessels associated with banqueting and would have been a hot topic of conversation."

The games were also closely linked to Greek mythology, with legends of victorious heroes or kings tied to their foundations.

"The fact that all games were held in honor of a god [such as Zeus for the Olympics] linked sport with religion and further intermeshed them with the other major aspects of Greek life," Swaddling said.

Archimedes Link?

The 3-D x-rays, described this week in the journal Nature, also allowed researchers for the first time to read the names of months inscribed on the device's 19-year calendar, revealing that they have Corinthian origins.

"Every Greek community had its own distinct calendar [and] they had different names for each month," Jones explained.

"Now that we can read the month names, we can say this is a calendar that comes from one of a number of places in the western Greek world, probably the island of Sicily [now part of Italy] or northwest Greece."

Sicily is a particularly intriguing possibility, because it was home to the scientist Archimedes, who is known from Roman records to have invented some lost types of mechanical astronomy devices.

"A book by [Roman philosopher] Cicero describes this thing [Archimedes constructed] and how it showed the movements of the sun and the moon, and how eclipses happened. It sounds a bit like what we've got [with the Antikythera mechanism]," Jones said.

Though Archimedes died a century or so before the mechanism was built, others in Sicily could have made it based on his knowledge and skills, the scientists theorize.

Team member Yanis Bitsakis, of the Center for History and Paleography in Athens, added that he expects to be busy for years to come deciphering still-unread inscriptions.

"We were amazed by this discovery, but we still have a lot of other inscriptions to read," he said. "They are fragmented in a giant jigsaw puzzle of 82 pieces."

The artifact's scrambled nature makes assembling characters into words and then deciphering their larger meaning a tough task.

"It's written in a style like an instruction manual. If you do this, then you'll see that," Bitsakis explained.

"So if we had the complete text, there would be no mystery. But we only have about one-fifth of what was initially there."
 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.