The student of history who devotes his attention solely to the most notable events and personae of the Hellenic tradition would only imperfectly comprehend its true character. Though the myriad nature of its Di Majores offers the pre-eminent claim upon the follower of the divine, it is always from the mundane and the mortal that surprises emerge.
Much, of course, is lost to us. So it is was with the Antikythera mechanism, a complex computational device discovered in hundreds of pieces on the sea bed near the eponymous island in 1900. A remnant of a ~1st c. BCE shipwreck, its nature—as sophisticated and intricate as a Victorian-era timepiece—confounded experts for a century. A definitive resolution of its astronomical purpose came only recently, narrowing the horizons on possibility even as it gave closure to an obsession that led many careers into ruin.
This strangest of puzzles, however, turned out to have a final twist. When the french archaeologist and historian Alain Brise died in September 2011, he left behind a collection of obscure documents and artifacts previously believed lost. Questionable family associations before and during World War II are held to be the reason both for his inheritance of the documents and his lifelong decision to conceal them; they were probably stolen from Jewish collections. A process of authentication is underway at the Ecole Nationale des Chatres, the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
Among the most valuable of the artifacts are fragments of correspondence, written mostly on paper or papyrus, between the astronomer and geographer Hipparchos in Rhodes and others: a namesake grandson of Eratosthenes in Alexandria, one Ptolemais of Cyrene, and a nephew, Critobulus. These remains may shed new light on the origins of this complex pre-modern mechanism.
Rob Beschizza, University of Rockall