Olympic Link on Antikythera Mechanism

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In CWA 30 we reported on recent research to understand the 2,000 year old scientific instrument salvaged from a Roman ship that sank off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in the 1st century BC. Since then, Mike Edmunds and Tony Freeth, of the Cardiff University team that is studying the device, have made progress in reading some of the 2,000 tiny Greek characters inscribed on the dials and the remnants of the bronze case: ‘it surprised us to discover that, as well as predicting the motions of the sun and the moon, it also showed the four-year cycle of ancient Greek games, including the Olympic Games,’ said Tony Freeth, whose latest work was published in the journal Nature.

The first clue to a link with the Olympiad cycle of games came from the discovery of the word Nemea, site of the Nemean Games, on a subsidiary dial. Other names followed, including Isthmia (the Corinthian Games), Pythia (the Games at Delphi) and finally Olympia for the Olympic Games. Unlike today’s games, which are held once in four years, the ancient Olympiad followed a complex four-year cycle, that began in summer at the full moon closest to the solstice – hence the need for a device as sophisticated as the Antikythera Mechanism, which uses an ingenious gearing system to calculate the phases of the sun, moon and planetary motion over a 19-year cycle. •

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 34. Click here to subscribe

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