World’s oldest computer link to early Olympics
(31 July 2008)
A 2,100-year-old computer recorded the dates of the early Olympiads, according to experts.
An international team of scientists, including Dr John Steele, of Durham University, also found that the ancient Greek calculating machine could predict eclipses. The findings, based on an examination of the Antikythera Mechanism, have been published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. “We knew that this 2,100 year-old ancient Greek mechanism calculated complex cycles of mathematical astronomy. It really surprised us to discover that it also showed the four-year cycle of ancient Greek games, including the Olympic Games,” said research scientist, Dr Tony Freeth of Images First Ltd UK. “The first clues that suggested a link with the ancient cycle of Greek games came when the word ‘NEMEA’ was read near a small subsidiary dial on the Mechanism. “This was the site of the Nemean Games, one of the prominent ‘crown’ games, which were part of the Olympiad cycle. “Other names followed, ‘ISTHMIA’ for the games at Corinth, ‘PYTHIA’ for the games at Delphi and finally the hard-to-read ‘OLYMPIA’ for the Olympic Games.” The Antikythera Mechanism is named after the tiny island of Antikythera, between Crete and mainland Greece where it was discovered. In 1900, Greek sponge divers found the wreck of a 1st Century BC Roman merchant vessel, stuffed full of Greek treasures—including beautiful bronzes, amphorae, glassware and pottery. In the subsequent archaeology organized by the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, they also recovered a corroded and calcified lump, about the size of a large dictionary. Disregarded at the time, it has proved to be one of the deepest mysteries from the ancient world. Using 3-D X-rays, the researchers have managed to read all the month names on a sophisticated 19-year calendar on the back of the Mechanism. The mechanism dates to around 150 to 100 BC. It was previously shown to display the date, positions of the Sun and Moon (including its variable motion), the phase of the Moon, a complex 19-year calendar and sophisticated eclipse prediction dials. Another aspect of the new work has been a deeper understanding of how the Mechanism predicted eclipses. “It has been a real struggle to understand the organisation of these predictions since they don’t conform to the pattern we might have expected from Babylonian astronomy,” said Dr John Steele, in Durham’s Department of Physics. “The Saros cycle of eclipses means that each time an eclipse repeats it happens eight hours later in the day. The Mechanism also includes a small dial that tells the user how to make this time adjustment.” The new research paper has four authors: Dr Tony Freeth (Images First Ltd, UK), Professor Alexander Jones (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, USA), Dr John M. Steele (Durham University, UK) and Yanis Bitsakis (Athens University & Centre for History and Palaeography, Athens, Greece).