Ancient Olympic Calculator Discovered

An ancient astronomy calculator appears to show the four-year cycle of the early Greek competitions that inspired today's Olympic Games.

Newly uncovered inscriptions on the 2,100 year-old device reveal names linked to the Olympiad cycle of games once celebrated among ancient Greek city-states.

"It's a surprise to find this on what we thought was an astronomical instrument," said Alexander Jones, a science historian at New York University who coauthored a study on the findings that are detailed this week in the journal Nature.

Scientists have long studied the Antikythera Mechanism as a complex gearwheel system that displays the date, positions of the sun and moon, lunar phases, a 19-year calendar, and a 223-month eclipse prediction dial. But the latest findings suggest the mechanism had applications beyond mathematical astronomy.

"It's not an instrument of pure science," Jones told LiveScience. He added that it demonstrates "the relationship of cosmic time to human time."

Studying the mechanism has proven challenging, because it remains fragile and encrusted with grime after divers retrieved it in 1901 from the shipwreck of a 1st-century B.C. Roman merchant ship. Over the past several years, 3-D X-ray scanners have helped reveal more of what amounts to a user's manual inscribed within the layers.

"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," said Tony Freeth, a scientist with Images First Ltd. in the U.K. and coauthor on the Nature study.

That name stood for the Nemean Games, one of the crown games in the Olympiad cycle. Other names that eventually resurfaced included 'ISTHMIA" for the games at Corinth, 'PYTHIA' for the games at Delphi, and finally 'OLYMPIA' for the Olympic Games.

The researchers also deciphered the month names on the Mechanism's 19-year lunar cycle calendar – a possible clue to the origins of the mechanism.

"It's not a calendar of the sort that astronomers would use," Jones explained. "It's more of a regional calendar that belonged to certain Greek cities such as Corinth."

That might suggest a link to famed Greek inventor and mathematician Archimedes, who lived in the Corinthian colony of Syracuse in Sicily about 100 years before the mechanism was constructed.

It's possible that a descendant or student of Archimedes may have taken their cue from the master, Jones said. But he added that the Mechanism contains knowledge of astronomy that only existed after Archimedes died in 212 B.C., which means that the inventor did not directly build the mechanism.

Either way, the mechanism has yet to give up all its secrets. Scientists still puzzle over the eclipse prediction dial, which has glyphs arranged at five or six month intervals around it. The glyphs indicate whether the eclipse is lunar or solar and the time of day, but do not match up precisely with known eclipse times.

"There's more work we need to do on this, I think," Freeth said.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.