Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Ancient Discoveries Highlights Ctesibus and Heron

Last Sunday I watched a wonderful series of programs about Ancient Discoveries. The first program focused on the Antikythera sometimes called the first computer, and discoveries by Archimedes and the often-overlooked contributions of Ctesibus. Ctesibus is probably most lauded for his work with the water clock.

"Ctesibus of Alexandria was the first to put wheels into the water clock. In so doing he added another chapter to the "romance of the wheel" and also made the clock run itself. Here was a float with a pointer the rise of which was controlled by water. Ctesibus fastened a cord to the float, ran the cord over a pulley and let the cord turn a wheel. The rising of the water supplied the motive power to keep it going, just as the flowing of water keeps water wheels turning in a stream. If a wheel was kept turning regularly by the rise of the water, a pointer on that wheel could be made to show the time on a clock face, much as the shadow marked it on the face of the dial. The old "water-thief" really looked a little like our modern clocks. Like them it marked the time, clicking it off by the turns of its wheel so that to those who stood and watched it turn, it seemed to be actually stealing away the time. Sometimes a tiny figure of a man with upraised arm was set as the pointer, that he might be a warning to all who saw him moving around the circle of the clock face. As he moved time was passing, slipping away into eternity."

This article also mentioned that Pompey the Great introduced water clocks into the Roman courts to manage the length of court pleadings:

"Clepsydras were used throughout the Roman world. They were expensive. If they were to keep time accurately their machinery had to be made very carefully and constantly kept in order. But for public buildings and squares and for rich private homes they were most useful. Pompey the Great, the Roman general who lived from 106 to 48 B.C., had these clocks put in the courts where the lawyers were given to endless speech making, "to stop their babblings." He may have taken the idea from the Athenian courts of justice where the "water-thief" was also used to limit the length of pleas. "The first water," says an ancient writer, Æschines, "was given to the accuser, the second to the accused, and the third to the judges." A special court official was charged with the duty of watching the clock and giving notice to the speakers."

Ctesibus also developed a number of war machines including "a catapult using two bronze springs in a vertical frame to provide the powerful pressure against the heel of each bow limb. An even more interesting concept was the use by Ctesibus of compressed-air springs: the heel of each bow limb, when the string was drawn back, would press against a bronze piston, which in turn would be pushed into a bronze cylinder, thus storing energy as compressed air."

The second program focused on the Roman physician Galen. Unfortunately, I was so tired I fell asleep and missed most of it. Hopefully it will be repeated and next time I’ll be ready with the video recorder!

The third program was about Heron of Alexandria. I thought this was such a coincidence because we had just been talking about Heron. Heron was famous throughout the ancient world for his automaton theaters--puppet theaters worked by strings, drums, and weights--automatic doors, and coin-operated machines. Heron’s intricate systems of spindles studded with pegs and wound with ropes used to propel his automatic theater is like an early version of computer programming. Being a technologist, I particularly enjoyed this part of the discussion and a recreation of his Nauplius theater which had scenes that changed automatically and "actors" that built ships and dolphins that leaped from the waves. Heron turned to the theater as an outlet for his creative energies after he found designing war machines was too limiting. In this program they demonstrated one of his war machine designs – the first "machine gun". A chain-driven ballista-like device that could fire multiple bolts.
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Thursday, December 18, 2003

Replica of 3500-year-old Minoan Ship Launched

"Under the aegis of the culture ministry and the expert supervision of Vice-Admiral Apostolos Kourtis, the vessel has been constructed to be as exact a replica as possible of a Bronze Age Aegean vessel of about 1500BC. Ancient building methods have been observed and materials identical to those of antiquity have been used.

Advising Kourtis in the design have been seven other members of the Ancient Shipping and Technology Research Institute and the Naval Museum of Crete. Of particular help, says Kourtis, has been a precious wall-painting of a Bronze Age vessel at sea miraculously preserved for over 3,000 years under volcanic ash and pumice in the town of Akrotiri on Thera (Santorini), buried in the great Late Bronze Age eruption. Invaluable practical boatbuilding input to the project has come from Hania's last living master boatbuilder, Haralambos Kokkinakis.

Cypress trees were felled in the village of Anoskeli, about 25km from Hania, using a Bronze Age type of serrated, two-handled saw. The central beam (tropida) is from a single 22m cypress tree given a gentle curve by the warmth of a suitably distant fire. Overlapping timbers were put together using bronze tools: a bow-drill (toxotrypano), hammers and chisels.

To make the vessel watertight, a mixture of lard (from cows) and resin (from pine trees) was applied to the timbers like varnish, then covered with linen canvas, the whole plastered with lime. The timbers are expected to swell as the vessel lies moored in the harbour over the winter, awaiting spring weather next year to embark on her maiden voyage via Kythira and Monemvasia to the Saronic Gulf. The Minoa will skim over the sea powered by a crew of two dozen rowers clad in the dark-blue and white Greek Olympic Games uniform. Helmsmen will stand on either side of the skipper seated in the stern in an enclosure protected up to shoulder level by animal hides. As in antiquity, the vessel will stick as much as possible in sight of land and confine sailing to daylight hours.
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Thursday, December 11, 2003

West Nile Virus may have felled Alexander the Great

" 'When [Alexander] arrived before the walls of [Babylon],' Plutarch recorded, 'he saw a large number of ravens flying about and pecking one another, and some of them fell dead in front of him.'
The ravens might have been dying of West Nile virus infection, the researchers suggest. Ravens belong to a family of birds that are particularly susceptible to the pathogen - members of the same family are responsible for the virus' spread across the United States. "

"Epidemiologist John Marr of the Virginia Department of Health in Richmond and infectious-disease expert Charles Calisher of Colorado State University in Fort Collins suggest that the virus may finally have toppled Alexander the Great."
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Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Myths of Male Love Explored in Lovers' Legends Unbound CD

Combining archaeology, literature, theater and music, four artists from New York State have united their efforts to bring back to life the lost Greek myths of male love. Culminating four years of labor, they have released their work, titled 'Lovers’ Legends Unbound,' as a radio-drama genre production on audio-CD plus text with color illustrations of ancient art. The stories, painstakingly pieced together from ancient fragments and re-written by Andrew Calimach, have as protagonists characters we all thought we knew, but who reveal here a side censored out of popular literature ever since Roman times.

Listening to these magic stories – movingly narrated by Shakespearean actor Timothy Carter and spiced with flute music by Steve Gorn, of the contemplative music band Drala – we discover that Narcissus fell in love with a beautiful boy in a pond, ignorant it was his own reflection, all because of a curse upon him for having spurned the love of another man. Here too are Hercules and Hylas, in love, and together “morning, noon and night.” The stories integrate passion with spiritual and moral teachings: there is the shamanic story of Tantalus and the Olympians; and Pelops in Pisa, whose lover helps him gain a wife but can’t protect him from paying for his crimes. Stories about Orpheus, the prophet of male love; Zeus & Ganymede and jealous Hera;"
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Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Unknown verses of Menander discovered at the Vatican

A manuscript containing possibly unknown verses penned by the ancient Greek playwright Menander more than 2,000 years ago have come to light at the Vatican Library, the Vatican's newspaper has said.

While half of the 400 verses, copied on to a parchment in the ninth century, appear to be come from Menander's only salvaged play "The Grouch", or "Dyskolos", researchers believe 200 verses could be completely new finds.

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Ancient Helike Reveals Ties With Troy

"Digging on a coastal plain at the Gulf of Corinth three years ago, archaeologists came upon some ruins of Helike, a Greek city destroyed by earthquake in Plato's time. A search for the rest of Helike has now turned up something even more ancient, rare and inviting.
The archaeologists say they have uncovered the stone foundations, cobbled streets and pottery of a well-preserved 4,500-year-old urban center, one of the few Early Bronze Age communities ever found on the Greek mainland.
Preliminary investigation at the prehistoric site, the researchers say, reveals that this was a prosperous town at the time pre-Homeric Troy enjoyed one of its richest periods. The new-found ruins yielded a tall cylindrical cup in the style of graceful cups known from Troy, suggesting a wider Trojan influence than previously established."
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Tanagras Exhibit Featured At The Louvre

"Louvre visitors are now viewing displays of 240 statuettes of modestly draped and veiled matronly or maidenly figures found in thousands of graves from the era of Alexander the Great in cemeteries round the vanished hilltop city of Tanagra, about 20km east of Thebes in Viotia."

"The baked clay Tanagras are hardly more than 30 centimetres tall, about the height of a wine bottle. Some are thought to represent deities, but most realistically show figures, generally female, less often youths or children. They are above all marked by a charming grace."

Russian art historian GA Beloff once described them. "They spoke of the daily life of ancient Greece as expressed in a variety of poses and action full of grace and harmony. This ability to accentuate the beauty of the human figure, to model in clay resorting to all the artistic methods which had been perfected in time, is what makes the anonymous Tanagra sculptors genuine masters of plastic art, and the terracotta statuettes they made works of great artistic significance."
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Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Stone's Alexander the Great

Oliver Stone's film depicting the life and conquests of Alexander the Great looks promising, at least from this production still.

"Past and present collide to form the puzzle of the protagonist, a tapestry of triumphs and tragedies in which childhood memories and Alexander's rise to power unfold side by side with the latter day expansion of his empire, its gradual decline and ultimate downfall. From his youth, fueled by dreams of glory and adventure, to his lonely and mysterious death as a ruler of a vast state, from the tumultuous relationship with his parents -- a powerful king and a queen determined to put her child on the throne at any cost, including murder -- to the rousing 'band of brothers' bond with his closest companions and vast army, as they fought from the sun-scorched battlefields of the Persian Empire across the snow-peaked mountains of India, the film chronicles Alexander's journey to become a living legend. For as Virgil wrote, 'Fortune favors the bold.' And no king or emperor, either before or after, ever achieved such fortune, or indeed was so bold, as Alexander the Great."
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