LONDON A mechanical brass calculator used by the ancient Greeks to predict solar and lunar eclipses was probably also used to set the dates for the first Olympic games, researchers said on Wednesday.
The Antikythera Mechanism was retrieved from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, an example of the technological prowess of the ancient Greeks.
Researchers reporting in the journal Nature said they had now discovered that the device, made at the end of the 2nd century BC, used an intricate set of bronze gearwheels, dials and inscriptions to set the games' date.
The ancient Olympic Games, which marked the start of a four-year timespan called an Olympiad, began on the full moon closest to the summer solstice, which meant calculating the timing required expertise in astronomy.
Using three-dimensional, X-ray technology, researchers deciphered tiny inscriptions buried inside the device's fragmented brass pieces that pointed to its Olympic role.
The name "Nemea" was found near a small dial on the mechanism, a reference to the site of one of the prominent games in the Olympiad cycle, the researchers said. Locations such as Olympia also appeared.
"It really surprised us to discover that it also showed the four-year cycle of ancient Greek games, including the Olympic Games," said Tony Freeth, a researcher at the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project who worked on the study.
The ancient Olympics were first recorded in 776 BC and continued until they were banned by the Chrstian Roman emperor Theodosius I around 394 AD.
Scientists had thought the device originated in the Eastern Mediterranean because it was found among items from that region, Freeth added in a telephone interview.
But the names of months used were of Corinthian origin, which indicates the mechanism comes from the other side of the Greek world in northwestern Greece, Corfu or Sicily, Freeth said.
Devices of such complexity were not seen in the West again until the appearance of medieval cathedral clocks.
The latest modern-day Olympic Games will open on Aug 8, a date chosen by their Chinese hosts because it is pronounced like the word "fa", part of the expression meaning "to get wealthy".
(Reporting by Michael Kahn, editing by Jon Boyle and Philippa Fletcher)