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Greek wine cup or star chart?

Evidence Mounts for Early Greek Celestial Expertise


It is often rightly said that the birthplace of science is ancient Greece.  Our best and brightest minds today are said to be standing on the shoulders of giants.  That’s usually a nod to the humbled genius of Sir Isaac Newton who uttered something similar in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676.  Though we all know Newton was not of the humble sort.

That famous phrase, which now adorns the cover of Stephen Hawking’s anthology of classical science papers, is correctly attributed to Bernard of Chartres, a French philosopher and genius in his own right:

“We are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants, and thus we are able to see more and farther than the latter. And this is not at all because of the acuteness of our sight or the stature of our body, but because we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants.”

One can certainly see why this sentiment has been adopted by those wishing to give credit (or some credit) to their predecessors.  And when it comes to the knowledge we have in the realm of science, it cannot be denied that much of it is due to the incredible insights of the classical Greek Masters.  Those masters, it seems, actually worked out more about the world in which we live, than most are currently aware.

There’s a cup, currently on display at the Lamia Archaeological Museum in Greece.  It’s not an ordinary cup by modern standards, but it wasn’t really thought to be all that special either.  It’s just an ancient, two-handled wine cup with stylized animals artfully dancing around its surface.  Of course, it has historic value, it is roughly 2,600 years old after all, but there are better examples of Greek pottery on display in that same museum.

This thinking has just taken a drastic detour though…

This cup, the style of which is known as a skyphos, is currently being studied with great interest, as a possible origin, or at least one of the first known stellar calendars.  Up until recently, this particular cup was thought to depict simple, random animals frolicking around the rim, but new analysis by John Barnes, a classical archaeology doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri, suggests that it may in fact be much more than that.

Barnes recently spoke with Live Science magazine and offered an enticing look at his research.  He says that the animals seen on this cup are actually fairly accurate depictions of constellations, showing a progression over the period of perhaps an entire year.  According to Barnes, it’s unlikely to be an actual star chart or celestial calendar, and is probably more of an attempt to represent time in a more general way, using constellations as the foundation.

This is perhaps not immediately as impressive to you as it is to others, since we’ve long thought the Greeks famous for their celestial knowledge base, and in fact most of today’s known constellations were named in the classical Greek period.  If correct in his conclusions, which have been published in the science journal Hesperia[1], Barnes claims that the impact would be revolutionary, simply because it may mean that many other examples of pottery and Greek art that have previously been thought to have only random or simple stylizations, are in fact examples of the earliest star charts in the history of mankind.

"If we go back and re-evaluate other animal scenes that might have been originally categorized as hunting scenes or animal friezes, then maybe we can find more [depictions of constellations] and get a greater understanding of how the ancient Greeks viewed the night sky," Barnes told Live Science.

Antykithera Mechanism

This is an incredible insight, but in light of other recent realisations about Ancient Greek artefacts, it brings an even larger issue further into focus.

A study recently conducted by researchers from the National University of Quilmes (Argentina), has caused quite a stir in the archaeological, historical, and fringe science circles.  This study focuses on the origin and construction of the famed Antykithera Mechanism[2].

Called, by some, the first computer in existence, the Antykithera Mechanism is an enigma.  First found in an ocean wreck off the coast of the small island of Antykithera (hence the name), it sat unexamined in a drawer in the same museum in which the above skyphos is on display.  No one had any idea how important this strange artefact is to our understanding of history.

Once it was rediscovered – so to speak – and analysis began, researchers found that it is in fact a highly complex machine, with gears and dials and delicate inscriptions that seem to match up with star alignments.  This led everyone (or nearly everyone) to believe that it’s an ancient sextant or star map.  The problem is that it’s been dated, through radiometric decay measurements, to have originated around 100-150 BCE.  That, in and of itself, was a problem, as it was believed that no one of that era could have conceived of, much less built such a device.

The idea that it had some purpose related to using the stars for navigation at sea, has slowly come to be accepted as fact, or as close to fact as we can get.  Until, that is, this new research threw all the accepted knowledge out the window.

The Argentinian researchers have been scouring the device for clues as to its origin and age, and they struck upon an incredible bit of information.  It seems that a dial on the back of the artefact contains an inscription that clearly corresponds to a solar eclipse that we know happened on May 12, 205 BCE, easily 100 years earlier than previously thought possible.  That alone tells us that whoever made it had not only the technical skill to create something so mechanically advanced that nothing like it was seen for at least another 500-1000 years, but they also had celestial knowledge that is far more advanced than anything known in the the entirety of Greek antiquity.

Unless, of course, we consider John Barnes ideas about the skyphos.  When we do that, it seems plausible that what we think we know about Greek celestial knowledge amounts to jack…well you know.

These findings, both of which are still under a great deal of scrutiny, could ultimately lead to a complete reorganising of our understanding of not only what the Greeks knew, but when they knew it and what they did with it.

Exciting things are on the horizon.


[1] Barnes, John T. Asteras Eipein: An Archaic View of the Constellations from Halai.  Hesperia (2014), Volume 83, Issue 2.  Page(s): 257-276

[2] Carman, Christián C.; Evans, James. On the epoch of the Antikythera mechanism and its eclipse predictor. Archive for History of Exact Sciences November 2014, Volume 68, Issue 6, pp 693-774

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