The Antikythera Mechanism

The BBC, New York Times, and LA Times all have fascinating accounts of an ancient “computer” used to predict astronomical phenomena. This ancient Greek device dated to about 100 BC was salvaged from a Roman shipwreck off the island of Anikythera between the Greek coast and Crete. Over eighty fragments have been found that represent 30 hand-cut bronze gears.

These were originally found by sponge-divers early in the 20th century and have been the source of much study since. They were recently reexamined using an x-ray tomography machine, similar to that used for human CT scans. The researchers were able to image the bronze gears more clearly and were able to decipher twice as many inscriptions on the casting.

From the LA Times:

“They concluded that the device contained 37 gears, about 30 of which still survive.

It was originally housed in a wooden case slightly smaller than a shoebox.Two dials on the front show the zodiac and a calendar of the days of the year that can be adjusted for leap years. Metal pointers show the positions in the zodiac of the sun, moon and five planets known in antiquity. Two spiral dials on the back show the cycles of the moon and predict eclipses.

The complicated meshing of the gears is a physical representation of the so-called Callippic and saros astronomical cycles. In the Callippic cycle, for example, the sun, moon and Earth return to the same relative orientations four times in 76 years minus one day.

The saros cycle predicts that, following a solar or lunar eclipse, a similar eclipse will occur 223 lunar months later.

By turning the gears with a hand crank, the user could select a specific day in the past or future and observe the positions of the heavenly objects on that day.”

This is an unexpectedly high level of sophisticated technology for the Hellenistic world, and begs the question of what other sophicated geared calculating devices could have been used for other purposes. Nothing else this technologically complex was was seen in Europe for another 1400 years, and gives a reminder of how much was lost when the Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th century.

RTWT and look at pictures of some of the reconstructed devices.

This news came at a good time for me as I have just completed reading The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins and am in the midst of Peter Green’s survey of the Hellenistic world, Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age. Green does a good job detailing the achievements (and failures) of the Hellenistic age. This find obviously adds more to the technological luster of the period. The LA Times article for example, points out that the famous Roman Cicero wrote of a device such as this one, but historians have always dismissed it as exaggeration or a myth. Perhaps other Classical writings should be reexamined for such “exaggerations.”

Ward-Perkins’ book is a corrective to recent trends in scholarship on Late Antiquity. A whole school of revisionist historians over the last 20-30 years have rejected the position that the Western Roman Empire was destroyed by barbarian invasions. They use less judgemental language and say that the 5th century was a “period of adjustment” where Germanic tribes who had been “invited” to settle in the Empire for “defensive purposes” assumed regional soverignty by taking over the existing Roman administrative structure. They say it was not an abrupt change, just new bosses taking over the old political establishment. It is true that the Germanic tribes did take over that structure, but the Western Empire and the Roman and Gallic populations fought it every step of the way.

Ward-Perkins shows through documentary and archaeological evidence, that commerce, culture, technology, and standards of living very quickly fell from levels in the Late Empire that were not regained for a thousand years in Europe. The Antikythera Mechanism is another example of how far that fall was.

More Pack Rats!

One more footnote from my trip west might be appropriate, given Querencia’s recent pack rat-related posts, here and (Yum!) here. Reid reported on the value of the Neotoma as archeo-climate-geological index and even as a human food item. The natural history of the pack rats (or wood rats) deserves plenty of attention, and maybe we can get Darren to supply us with some cool data. That there is also a sporting angle to this silky-furred rodent shouldn’t surprise any Q. readers…

Although we have a version of this animal here in the southeast, and sometimes encounter it hawking rabbits or squirrels in mixed woodland, I still think of the pack rat as a quintessential “western” critter. Their large dens, spiked with prickly pear and deep set into thick cholla cactus bushes make safe havens for rabbits, quail and small desert birds, in addition to the rodents who build them. My right hand (ungloved while hawking) has numerous embedded spines now from the painful but commonplace work of flushing game from pack rat mounds.

The funny thing is that we rarely catch the builder of the mound while trying to flush the rabbit or quail that took refuge in his home. There must be a cozy antechamber or two for the rats to bunker down in when under attack.

Nonetheless, in pursuit of a scaled quail with our friend’s good goshawk, Vinney, we happened to flush both the quail and rat. Ordinarily, the hawk would only account for one quarry at a time (and this gos would probably choose to chase the bird). But on that day our efforts were bolstered by another falconer’s gamehawking terrier, who leaped at the chance to do the job for which he was bred.

Here are a few pics from the hunt. In the first, you can see Jimmy holding the gos, who leans forward in anticipation of the flush, while we poke at the den with long-handled hoes (only partially effective at saving hands from spines). At some point the action gets a little more chaotic; there’s a complicated reshuffling of the players in this drama, then the curtain closes for two of them.

Coincidentally, we caught another pack rat later in the week, this time with a Harris hawk, a bird with little preference for fur or feather and plenty happy with both. Though neither rodent made it into the “rat brine” recipe Reid shared with us, both made good meals for the hawks (served, rare).

Once more around the web

I just finished an article on Turkish pigeons for the excellent online pigeon mag Aviphilia and am getting caught up,so will I hope soon return to real blogging. Meanwhile, a roundup of things serious and trivial..

At Three Martini Lunch, Roseannn– between recipes!– has just posted on her recent diagnosis with breast cancer. That such a post can be brave, sane, and funny all at the same time is a tribute to this woman I am proud to call a friend. She writes:

“So as this new odyssey unfolds for me I’ll try to report the interesting stuff without turning it into a life obsession – rather, it will be a life-lesson.

“And besides, I’ve decided that if I have to have a mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy, maybe I can get insurance-covered reconstruction and order 36Cs on both sides – start a new career as a Victoria’s Secret model . . .”

RTWT. And don’t forget to look at this recipe below as well.

Speaking of recipes, Pluvialis has returned to blogging after a patch of overwork and illness– and she is recipe blogging– “PLOV” blogging at that. I had this wonderful dish of rice, sheep, and vegetables in Kazakhstan but had no idea how to make it. I suspect the secrets are to wash much of the starch out of the rice, and this:

“Pour far too much oil into the base of a very heavy pan (I use an enamel french casserole; in Uzbekistan a giant iron Plov pot). When I say too much, I mean far too much. I reckon two and a half good ladlefuls. Then heat it until it is very, very, very, very hot.”

We in the west are far too afraid of fat, as Roseann also observes.

Fear of Bird Flu is making the Koreans kill dogs (not that they have ever had many objections). HT Dog Politics.

James Swan gives Eagle Dreams a nice compliment in his ESPN column. I hope to be in his forthcoming anthology.

Last, fans of Vadim Gorbatov and Q. should check out his journey and art at the REF. Scroll down to see us and more tales of the Spur and click on the hyperlinks for art, including a sketch of Gambel’s quail he made on Lee Henderson’s rannch as we watched them, and the resulting watercolor.

Scenes from Magdalena

For the best words on Magdalena and thereabouts, I recommend you first to Steve. His vivid descriptions of the place–his base camp for more than twenty years–provide evocative settings for many of his published works. Though Steve travels widely, his frequent musings on what’s familiar or different about each place he visits suggest his mind is never far from home. He sees high, dry, wild Central Asia in the Magdalenian countryside, for example, and shades of Magdalena elsewhere.I knew from reading him that when I saw his New Mexican village, I would recognize it instantly. Libby’s directions seemed to anticipate that I would:

Way easy to get here: Go to Socorro. The main street through Socorro is California Street. If you are coming form the north, get off at the second Socorro exit, which is at the south end of town. It will loop you around to the north. At the first stoplight, take a left. That will put you on Highway 60 heading to Magdalena. It’s about 26 miles — just keep going across La Jencia Plain, which is quite gorgeous. Go into the middle of Magdalena.


“If you get messed up for some reason, ask. But you won’t.”

I didn’t have to ask. But as I discovered later, anyone in town could easily have directed me to Casa Bodio, no street names or house numbers needed. They might have said, “The rock house, across from the Spur. With pigeons.”When I pulled up, I could see Steve through the window, reading. We met at the door and shook hands, which clambered into a kind of awkward hug. Steve and I are friends and partners in the virtual world; but in the real world, virtual strangers. Odd how the Internet can do that.No photos inside the home. It’s permissible, I think, to be a tourist and a pilgrim (I was), but unpardonable to make a curio of your host. Still, it was hard to resist taking photos. The Bodio place is just too cool. Imagine a wizard’s cottage (oldschool, like 15th Century) with wood plank shelves packed tight with great books, bottled spices, animal skulls and small, hand-carved totems. Beautiful and bizarre art hangs on the walls, and rugs like tapestries. Each room is small and distinct and seems to contain its own spirit. Or maybe, if Rebecca O’Connor is right, its own ghosts. I am not exaggerating: the Bodio home is unique.Release the hounds! I know he told me, and I met them, but I forget exactly how many dogs Steve and Libby have. Maybe six or eight, most of them sighthounds, with the notable exception of the ancient, saintly Dachshund, Lily. All are loved, but there are favorites: Ataika, the whippet-sized Tazi and the much larger Lashyn are mostly indoor dogs, as is the Dachs. The rest of the pack lives (happily, riotously) in the fenced backyard with the garden, shade trees and the pigeons. I received aloof scrutiny from the three indoor animals and then a wild reception from the pack outside, an almost-attack led by Plummer, the very macho lurcher.Back in the kitchen, Steve tended a dish of braised oxtail in reduced wine sauce, a Bodio specialty that he describes as “coming from the damndest part of the cow.” Libby whipped up mashed potatoes (“Nothing fancy,” she insisted–but there were at least half a dozen ingredients.) Later, as the vodka settled and the sauce cooled on the plates, all that remained of the meal were large, disarticulated vertebrae.The Golden Spur. Steve wonders what the fascination is. It’s just a bar. But a man’s watering hole is a special place, and all of us who frequent one can appreciate that. Mine is in New Orleans, an inconvenient eighty miles away. Steve’s is right across the street. When I offered to drive us, Steve just laughed and pointed.The interior was a surprise. It was…nice. Not fancy, but refurbished, and this was a great disappointment to the regulars, who would rather have it like it was. Steve explained that the old bar was under new management, which opened a discussion on the nature of “Nuevos,” new New Mexicans who bring to town their own ideas of how the place should be. Steve pointed out that most everyone was an immigrant anyway, but still, that was generations ago. This is different. True nativity depends on your objectives and where your loyalties lie. It proved a hot topic at the Spur and lasted us most of the night and any number of drinks. Around 3AM the following morning, long after leaving the Spur, I woke shaking in the guesthouse next door. The immaculate little cottage is run as a renter by the Bodio’s next-door neighbors. It is better than any hotel, and I highly recommend it. It is also haunted.Rebecca O’Connor shared the story with me once in Amarillo. She has slept in the same guesthouse three times now and with a straight face claims the place has ghosts. One of them woke her late in the night, pressed its face to hers and whispered some cryptic apology. Scared the hell out of her. My own ghost, I swear it, sat at the kitchen table, solemnly smoking a cigarette in the dark. Since I was up, I went outside to check the truck. I had embarrassed Steve earlier by locking it as we left for the bar. I’m from a part of the country that rewards good will with grand theft auto; securing my possessions is a natural precaution, like living in bear country. Of course, the truck was unmolested, locked in a seamless layer of frost. Looking up, I faced a shocking field of stars. The nearest one was nearly close enough to touch.First light found us in the backyard with dogs pressing in and out of our legs and pigeons wheeling overhead. Libby’s strong coffee, the first brew with any body I’ve tasted west of the Mississippi, scalded my hand when Plummer pushed against me for attention. “We have a friend just like him,” said Libby.We spent the rest of the morning outdoors. Steve and I loaded Lashyn and Ataika and drove them to the hills for a run. The dogs bounced lightly on their hydraulic struts, covering the country with a gait that might take them miles without perceptible effort. Steve’s own step was lively, and he gave running commentary on the dogs’ behavior as I huffed along behind him. I was ashamed to find myself falling behind. There’s less air up there than I’m used to breathing.We didn’t flush any jackrabbits (Steve calls them hares, which is more correct) but had a good walk and a photo op. We drove then to a rise at the rim of La Jencia Plain on a ranch owned by a friend. The spot wasn’t very far away, by truck, but impossible to cover on foot in less than a day, which I didn’t have. Note: Everything “out west” is easier to reach in a truck.At the top of the rise in the middle of the Plain was a cattle tank, surrounded by a panorama of rolling hills and mountain peaks. Inside this tank, unaccountably, swims a school of giant goldfish. Steve was as delighted to show me those fish as to show off the view. I should have taken their picture, and realize now that by shooting the panorama instead (merely breathtaking), I marked myself a tourist. Next trip I’ll shoot the fish.Steve had much more to show me: a peregrine eyrie on a far peak, rare books and monographs, more hills, another crack at the hares and more vodka. I could have stayed but had left my own dog and hawk with friends in Albuquerque. We lingered after lunch, looking at digital photos of trained eagles and old friends, some of them mutual. A couple years ago, the same computer screen delivered to Steve my first emailed “Hello” and his gracious reply. We shook hands again at the door and said goodbye, for now. The second hug was easier.

Back Home

Composite of Magdalenan landscape and a trio of Steve’s pigeons in flight
Just a quick note with more (and worse) to follow. I’m back in from a record-breaking November hawking trip: 3,000 miles over nine days and from Zero to 7,000+ feet of elevation. Lungs, butt and truck all still feeling the trip!

As mentioned below, I swooped (swung? swang?) through the Bodios’ mountain hideaway on Monday evening. It was a ridiculously short visit, but—I hope—not the last.

Uploading pics today. Here’s a snippet of Steve’s Tazis (two, anyway). See how they run

Rock Art Convergence

A while back Steve and I posted on some common features that we had seen with regard to representations of shamanism in rock art. I shared pictures from Little Petroglyph Canyon in Inyo County, California, and Steve showed his from the site of Tamgaly outside of Almaty in Kazakhstan.

Steve sent me this picture of a petroglyph of a line of dancers that he took at Tamgaly. You can see them in the lower right corner of the image.

It immediately reminded me of this line of dancers that I had seen in Little Petroglyph Canyon. If you look closely you can see that this line of stick-figures is pecked into two faces of rock and wraps around the corner of the exposure. Accounts of shamanistic visions often describe a dance or ceremony where the shaman receives his power – all part of the trance as the shaman is alone. Another interesting point is that the dancing figures are very small. A common condition reported in the shamanic trances is the perception of very small hallucinations – “Lilliputian hallucinations.” Perhaps the figures’ small size is reflective of that effect.


One interesting thing you can easily do here in Santa Barbara is whale watching. Gray Whales, Blue Whales, and Humpbacks all migrate through the Santa Barbara Channel at various times of the year and there are a number of boats out of the harbor here and down in Ventura who will take you out for half-day tour. We try to go once a year or so. You can also often see them from shore if you keep a sharp eye.

I was rummaging around in my picture files and found found these shots that I took on a boat outing three or four years ago. On this particular day, the boat was “mugged” by three Humpbacks, who spent about half an hour bobbing around the boat engaged in various antics. The one in the picture above was so close that I probably could have touched him if I had laid down on the deck and reached out my arm.

Gray and Blue whales don’t seem to want to engage in these interactions and tend to just push on past the boats. Humpbacks do all sorts of things. These three did lots of big tail-slaps. They also did what is called “sky-hopping” where they sort of tread water to get their eyes above the water’s surface and watch the boat. One of them also breeched about 100 feet from the boat – shot completely out of the water to a height of about 10 feet – and crashed back down into the sea. I of course, watched in amazement with my mouth open and my camera idle in my hands.At one point, the three whales came up on the up-wind side of the boat and spouted – exhaled actually. The spray drifted over the boat and it was my first encounter with whale breath. Imagine the smelliest, nastiest, most sulphurous fart you’ve ever smelled with strong overtones of rotten fish. That is whale breath!

Around the Web

Not much time to blog– Matt just swooped through (and I expect will have pics and maybe video soon) and guests plus Mr. and Mrs. Peculiar are coming for Thanksgiving. But here are a few tidbits to tide you over.

Attention houndmen: PETA is trying to steal your dogs. HT Patrick of course.

As I have always suspected, evolution works faster than you may think.

Some people are really too dumb to live; David Zincavage at Never Yet Melted links to one here.

Larissa has written a hilarious but ultimately serious defense of vanity. She begins by remembering that when she was little she actually watched herself cry:

“There’s a story from my babyhood that I often ask my mom to repeat, partly because it’s so damn cute, but mostly because it’s about me, and I like hearing stories starring me. She says that whenever I cried, she’d hold me, and I would angle myself to face the large antique mirror that hung on the door in our kitchen and then just watch my reflection as I cried. She’d have to hold me up in front of the glass for a good twenty minutes while I sniffled and sobbed until I started kicking her in the chest, which meant I was finished and now hungry. If I was in another room at the time of an upset, she’d pick me up, and I would twist and strain in her arms as she held me, and instead of the usual uninhibited wailing, my sobs had a hesitant, questioning quality–my perceptive mother would then carry me to my favorite spot in the kitchen where I’d finally let it all out “on camera.” “

RTWT, of course.

Andrew Stuttaford points us to a reissue of a cookbook I suspect I’ll be getting: the politically incorrect- but- green Countryman’s Cookbook from England. In addition to prescience about polluted rivers and such, and some really good recipes, it includes a (parodic) recipe for cormorant (I lost it and will try to find a link) that includes setting the carcass on fire to remove the feathers, burying it for thirty days, and worse…

More to come. You might check out the remarkable blog Rants and raves, especially the post on fictional and imagined religions that begins with Kipling’s Mithraic hymn– I’ll be commenting on it at lenghth soon I hope. Another for the blogroll…

Happy Thanksgiving!

Another Quiz

Anyone want to try and identify these three crania? That is a centimeter scale for reference.

From left to right:
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

Very good everyone and thank you! “In vino veritas,” eh, Pluvialis?