Library Exhibition on "Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity"

By Gabriel McKee

Last week the ISAW Library unveiled its contribution to the current ISAW exhibition Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Located on the second floor of ISAW, the small library exhibition showcases materials related to ancient timekeeping, with a particular emphasis on the Antikythera mechanism and Athens’ Tower of the Winds.

The Antikythera mechanism, generally considered the oldest known analog computer, was discovered in 1901 in a shipwreck dating to the first century BCE off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera. For many years, the function of the device was a mystery, but the use of cutting-edge analytic techniques over the past two decades have made its function clear: the device was a complex calendrical computer used for tracking and predicting the positions of the planets.

Our exhibition includes several major publications related to the device, including the first published images of the artifact from N. Svoronos’  1903 publication Die Funde von Antikythera; Derek J. de Solla Price’s 1975 monograph Gears from the Greeks, which made groundbreaking use of radiographic imagery; and The Inscriptions of the Antikythera Mechanism, the recently-issued publication of the corpus of textual inscriptions found on and inside the mechanism, many of which were only decipherable through the use of three-dimensional imaging.

 The final volume in our exhibition is the oldest volume in the ISAW Library’s collection: an early 17th-century edition of Walther Hermann Ryff’s 1548 German translation of Vitruvius’ De Architectura. Book IX of Vitruvius’ masterwork deals with sundials and clocks, and is central for our understanding of the recording of time in Classical antiquity.

The ISAW Library is excited to provide a bibliographical supplement to Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity. We are grateful to all those who have helped to make this display possible, especially Sally Dickinson of the Watkinson Library, the entire ISAW Exhibition Department, ISAW Interim Director (and curator of Time and Cosmos) Alexander Jones, and ISAW Library Clerk Emma Sarconi.