Newsreel

Our fascination with the ancient world leads us to try to reconstruct it, whether that’s archaeologists dressing a bison with stone tools, or making tv shows like Rome. We want to see what it was like, and get a glimpse of what it might have been like for the people who lived then. We use our discoveries to fuel those reconstructions, though sometimes they disappoint us, and other times they surprise us. For today’s Newsreel, I found two stories where we’ve brought bits of the ancient world to life in a couple of strange ways. First, archaeologists have recently reconstructed an ancient Greek computer that was found at the bottom of the sea. Then, you’ll read about the world’s foremost expert in classical and medieval beers. Santayana said that history repeats, but I doubt this is what he had in mind. 

I Can’t Do That Demosthenes

The first underwater wreck ever explored was discovered in 1900, and yielded a number of strange finds. Treasures, artifacts, and most confusingly a large container that contained an assortment of cogs, wheels, and instructions. The ship itself was Roman, carrying Greek treasure back home to the coffers of the empire. According to the New Scientist, the Antikythera mechanism, as it’s known, “had pointers that displayed the positions of the sun, moon and planets in the sky, as well as a star calendar, eclipse prediction dial and a timetable of athletics events including the Olympics.” Let me repeat that. This two thousand year old piece of clockwork predicted the movements of the planets and stars, as well as important dates and even marked the zodiac. Automatically, without needing someone to adjust it every time. It’s a computer by any other name, and is about the size of your monitor. How do we know? Because archaeologist Michael Wright built one. Check out the video below, and read the full article at the New Scientist.

One For the Road

We all know that academia’s favourite pastime, just ahead of lecturing and research, is drinking. But experimental archaeologist and University of Pennsylvania lecturer Dr. Patrick McGovern has found a way to unify those things by becoming the world’s foremost expert on ancient beers. This involves locating and translating ancient recipes, from the world’s oldest grape wine (dating back 7400 years), to the oldest booze we know of, which goes back nine thousand years. But he does more than just read about it. As an experimental archaeologist, he recreates these recipes, working with pubs and breweries to see just what the ancients were tasting. His work involves translating recipes, but also extracting and analyzing residues from ancient pottery and drinking vessels. He links the production of booze to the formation of culture, saying that “By the time we became distinctly human 100,000 years ago, we would have known where there were certain fruits we could collect to make fermented beverages, we would have been very deliberate about going at the right time of the year to collect grains, fruits and tubers and making them into beverages at the beginning of the human race.”It’s really quite amazing what you can accomplish with a couple of drinks and some hard work, I suppose. For more, read the extensive article on Dr. McGovern’s work at the Smithsonian.

The past enchants us, tempting us with the lost knowledge of ancient peoples, and enticing us with experiences beyond anything we can imagine. These are just a few ways that archaeologists and classicists work to rebuild it so we can hold it in our hands, rather than reading about it in texts. Dr. McGovern and Professor Wright are both focused on recreating the past so we can hold it in our hands and taste it on our tongues, bringing it to life again in a way that excites our curiosity rather than satisfying it.

Jim Tigwell is a blogger and recovering classicist. Writing about philosophy at Concept Crucible, you can find him on Twitter as @ConceptCrucible. He can’t help wondering if some day his pastimes will be reconstructed, but it’s hard to put together character sheets and charity projects.

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