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.

Feb 102016


Today is the feast day of St Paul’s Shipwreck (San Pawl Nawfragu) which is a public holiday in Malta, especially in Valletta, Marsalforn, and Munxar. I am not sure why this date was chosen. The event is described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27:27-28:5), the tail end of the book. The chronology of events in Paul’s life is endlessly disputed by scholars because what facts can be gleaned from letters that we are reasonably certain were written by Paul are not always in agreement with Acts. According to Acts Paul arrived in Jerusalem on his fifth and final visit in 57 with a collection of money for the community there. Acts reports that he was warmly received, but goes on to recount how Paul was warned by James and the elders that he was gaining a reputation for being against the Law, saying “they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.” (Acts 21:21) Paul underwent a purification ritual in order to give the Jews no grounds to bring accusations against him for not following the law. But he then caused a stir when he appeared at the Temple, and he escaped being killed by the crowd only by voluntarily being taken into Roman custody. When a plot to kill Paul on his way to an appearance before the Jews was discovered, he was transported by night to Caesarea Maritima. He was held as a prisoner there for two years, until a new governor reopened his case in 59.


When the governor suggested that he be sent back to Jerusalem for further trial, Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar, so he was transported to Rome. During the journey, vividly described in Acts, the shipwreck occurs. This passage is notable in that it is one of the so-called “we” passages – written in the 1st person plural. There is no scholarly consensus concerning these passages. They could be a deliberate forgery to suggest that the author of Acts was an actual eyewitness, or they could be redactions based on older, fragmentary primary material written by an eyewitness. I incline towards the latter, but this is more of an educated guess than anything else. Here’s the passage:

27:27 On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. 28 They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. 29 Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. 30 In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. 31 Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.

33 Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. 34 Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. 36 They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 Altogether there were 276 of us on board. 38 When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.

39 When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. 40 Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. 41 But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.

42 The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. 43 But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. 44 The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.

28:1 Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.


There is a special celebration in Valletta on Malta at the Collegiate Parish Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck on this day. The church hosts fine artistic works, including the magnificent altarpiece by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, as well as paintings by Attilio Palombi, and Giuseppe Calì. The wooden titular statue of St Paul was carved in 1659 by Melchiorre Cafà, the brother of Lorenzo Gafà who designed the dome. The statue is paraded through the streets of Valletta on the feast day of St Paul’s Shipwreck even (and appropriately) during heavy rain One can also view the relic of the right wrist-bone of St Paul, and part of the column from San Paolo alle Tre Fontane, on which the saint was reputedly beheaded in Rome.

paul5 paul6

For this feast day I have chosen the unofficial national dish of Malta, rabbit braised in red wine and garlic. Given the name, you scarcely need a recipe, but here goes. The trick is to use A LOT of garlic. This recipe calls for three BULBS, not cloves – whole bulbs.


Rabbit with garlic & wine (Fenek fit-tewm u l-inbid)


1 rabbit cut into 6 or 8 pieces
500ml red wine
3 whole garlic bulbs, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 bay leaves
salt and pepper


Place the rabbit pieces in an earthenware pot and cover with the wine. Refrigerate overnight.

In a large, heavy skillet gently sweat the garlic in the olive oil. Do not let it take on color.

Remove and reserve the garlic, leaving the oil in the pan. Heat the oil on medium-high, remove the rabbit pieces from the wine, and brown them in the oil on all sides – reserving the wine.

Place the rabbit, garlic and bay leaves in an ovenproof casserole. Cover with the wine, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and bake at around 375°F for an hour or until the meat is tender. Check the liquid level periodically to make sure that the wine is reducing to a thick sauce, but not drying out. Uncover towards the end if it is not reducing sufficiently.

Serve with boiled new potatoes and marrowfat peas.

Serves 4