May 172017

On this date in 1902, archaeologist Valerios Stais found among some pieces of rock that had been retrieved from the Antikythera shipwreck in Greece 2 years earlier, one piece of rock that had a gear wheel embedded in it. Stais initially believed it was an astronomical clock, but most scholars at the time considered the device to be an anachronism of some sort, too complex to have been constructed during the same period as the other pieces that had been discovered with it (dated around the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE). Nope !! What is now called the Antikythera mechanism is, in fact, an ancient Greek analogue computer and orrery used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes, as well as a four-year cycle of athletic games that was similar, but not identical, to an Olympiad, the cycle of the ancient Olympic Games.  Nothing like it would re-emerge in Europe for 15 centuries. There is so much about the ancient world that remains a mystery (Stonehenge, the Pyramids, etc.).

The Antikythera mechanism was found to be housed in a 340 mm (13 in) × 180 mm (7.1 in) × 90 mm (3.5 in) wooden box but full analysis of its form and uses has only recently been fully performed.  In fact after Stais discovered it, it was ignored for 50 years, but then gradually scientists of various stripes, including historians of science, looked into it, and research into the mechanism is ongoing. Derek J. de Solla Price of Yale became interested in it in 1951, and in 1971, both Price and Greek nuclear physicist Charalampos Karakalos made X-ray and gamma-ray images of the 82 fragments.

The mechanism is clearly a complex clockwork device composed of at least 30 meshing bronze gears. Using modern computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning, a team led by Mike Edmunds and Tony Freeth at Cardiff University were able to look inside fragments of the crust-encased mechanism and read the faintest inscriptions that once covered the outer casing of the machine. Detailed imaging of the mechanism suggests it dates back to around 150-100 BCE and had 37 gear wheels enabling it to follow the movements of the moon and the sun through the zodiac, predict eclipses and even recreate the irregular orbit of the moon. The motion, known as the first lunar anomaly, was first described by the astronomer Hipparchus of Rhodes in the 2nd century BCE, and so it’s possible that he was consulted in the machine’s construction. Its remains were found as one lump later separated into three main fragments, which are now divided into 82 separate fragments after conservation work. Four of these fragments contain gears, while inscriptions are found on many others. The largest gear is approximately 140 mm (5.5 in) in diameter and originally had 224 teeth.

It is not known how the mechanism came to be on the sunken cargo ship, but it has been suggested that it was being taken from Rhodes to Rome, together with other looted treasure, to support a triumphal parade being staged by Julius Caesar. The mechanism is not generally referred to as the first known analogue computer, and the quality and complexity of the mechanism’s manufacture suggests it has undiscovered predecessors made during the Hellenistic period.

In 1974, Price concluded from the gear settings and inscriptions on the mechanism’s faces that it was made about 87 BCE and lost only a few years later. Jacques Cousteau and associates visited the wreck in 1976 and recovered coins dated to between 76 and 67 BCE. Though its advanced state of corrosion has made it impossible to perform an accurate compositional analysis, it is believed the device was made of a low-tin bronze alloy (of approximately 95% copper, 5% tin). All its instructions are written in Koine Greek, and the consensus among scholars is that the mechanism was made in the Greek-speaking world.

In 2008, continued research by the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project suggested the concept for the mechanism may have originated in the colonies of Corinth, since they identified the calendar on the Metonic Spiral as coming from Corinth or one of its colonies in Northwest Greece or Sicily. Syracuse was a colony of Corinth and the home of Archimedes, which, so the Antikythera Mechanism Research project argued in 2008, might imply a connection with the school of Archimedes. But the ship carrying the device also contained vases in the style common in Rhodes of the time, leading to a hypothesis that the device was constructed at an academy founded by the Stoic philosopher Posidonius on that island. Rhodes was busy trading port in antiquity, and also a center of astronomy and mechanical engineering, home to the astronomer Hipparchus, active from about 140 BCE to 120 BCE. That the mechanism uses Hipparchus’s theory for the motion of the moon suggests the possibility he may have designed, or at least worked on it. Finally, the Rhodian hypothesis gains further support by the recent decipherment of text on the dial referring to the dating (every 4 years) of the relatively minor Halieia games of Rhodesl. In addition, it has recently been argued that the astronomical events on the parapegma (almanac plate) of the Antikythera Mechanism work best for latitudes in the range of 33.3-37.0 degrees north. Rhodes is located between the latitudes of 35.5 and 36.25 degrees north.

Using analysis of existing fragments various attempts have been made on paper, and in metal, to reconstruct a working model of the mechanism.

Some of the earliest Greek recipes extant mention the use of cheese. In book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus meets the Cyclops Polyphemus in cave who, on returning with his sheep and goats from the fields, milks them and makes cheese with the milk. Feta is made from sheep’s milk or a mix of sheep’s and goat’s milk, so some food historians conjecture that feta or something akin may date from the 8th century BCE (Homer’s era).

One of the oldest Greek recipes, although hard to interpret accurately, calls for fish baked with cheese and herbs.  I don’t have the necessary ingredients to hand to experiment at the moment, and recipes for baked or fried fish and feta that I have available, all call for New World ingredients such as tomatoes and zucchini. My suggestion would be to coat a roasting pan with olive oil, lay in some Mediterranean fish fillets, and top them with crumbled feta mixed with either yoghurt or breadcrumbs seasoned with dill, salt and pepper. Garlic and onions would make good seasonings as well. Bake at 375˚F for 20 to 25 minutes and serve with boiled potatoes and a green salad.

If you don’t want to be quite so adventurous, fill halved pitas with a mix of feta, chives and herbs, drizzle with olive oil, and grill briefly until the pitas are golden and the feta is soft.

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