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Medieval Calculator Up For Grabs
Nature ^ | 4-3-2008 | Philip Ball

Posted on 04/03/2008 5:16:39 PM PDT by blam

Medieval calculator up for grabs

UK museum seeks cash to keep a rare astrolabe in public hands.

Philip Ball

The British Museum needs £350,000 to secure this astrolabe. The fate of a fourteenth-century pocket calculator is hanging in the balance between museum ownership and private sale.

The device is a brass astrolabe quadrant that opens a new window on the mathematical and astronomical literacy of the Middle Ages, experts say. It can tell the time from the position of the Sun, calculate the heights of tall objects, and work out the date of Easter.

Found in 2005, the instrument has captivated experts. Now they hope to keep it in public hands — not just to ensure future access to it for researchers, but because it is deemed an item of national cultural importance.

Saved from sale

The quadrant was found in excavations of a series of clay floors on the site of an old inn called the House of Agnes, just outside the city walls of Canterbury in Kent, UK, on the main road to London. It had lain there for over 600 years. Conceivably it was lost at the site by a merchant travelling to or from Canterbury, rather like Chaucer’s pilgrims.

The quadrant was initially put up for sale in 2007 by the auctioneers Bonhams, where it was expected to fetch £60,000–£100,000 (US$120,000–$200,000). But subsequent dealings led to an agreed sale at a price of about £350,000 (the buyer hasn't been publicly disclosed).

Because of the perceived cultural importance of the object, however, it was considered by the United Kingdom’s Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, which recommended to the government’s culture minister Margaret Hodge that granting of an export licence should be delayed until June 2008, giving time for the British Museum to try to buy the instrument for its forthcoming new Medieval Gallery. Such decisions are usually applied to works of fine art, not to scientific items, says Jim Bennett, director of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, who was an expert witness for the reviewing committee. The British Museum is now trying to raise the £350,000 needed to match the offer.

Sweet simplicity

Most surviving astrolabes are larger and more complex, including other functions such as astrological calculations. Their use tended to be highly specialized, confined mostly to academic settings. A quadrant astrolabe kept in the library of Merton College in Oxford, for example — one of the few other examples of this design — is considerably more elaborate and geared for academic use.

In contrast, the new quadrant is a simple, everyday item — the kind of thing a cleric or a merchant would have carried with them for convenient time-keeping. All the same, says Bennett, “you had to know some astronomy to work one of these devices”. He adds that it has design features that would appeal to medieval gadget freaks, such as a moveable eagle that indicates the date of Easter.

Most intriguingly of all, the Canterbury quadrant has been dated to the time of Geoffrey Chaucer: specifically to about 1388, just around when Chaucer began to write his Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was highly informed about astronomy and astrology, and in 1391 he wrote a treatise on the astrolabe that became the standard reference text for several centuries.

The existence of this simple, practical device sheds new light on Chaucer’s treatise: it supports the idea that Chaucer’s work was a piece of popular science writing, understandable to more than just the elite. “It suggests that this kind of knowledge wasn’t too arcane or academic,” says Bennett.

The British Museum has until June to come up with the money needed to buy the device and prevent a private sale. A curator from the museum was unable to comment on the status of the fund-raising while it is still in progress.


TOPICS: News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: antikythera; antikytheramechanism; calculator; godsgravesglyphs; medieval; museum; uk

1 posted on 04/03/2008 5:16:39 PM PDT by blam
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To: blam; sionnsar

Very cool.


2 posted on 04/03/2008 5:18:13 PM PDT by Professional Engineer (www.pinupsforvets.com)
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To: SunkenCiv
GGG Ping.

Scientific Treasure Found In Junk Pit

3 posted on 04/03/2008 5:20:02 PM PDT by blam (Secure the border and enforce the law)
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To: blam; SunkenCiv; aculeus; Charles Henrickson; dead; dighton; Ezekiel; Lazamataz; mikrofon; ...

4 posted on 04/03/2008 5:21:55 PM PDT by martin_fierro (< |:)~)
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To: blam
Dig Team Finds Medieval Gateway

"Archaeologists in Somerset have uncovered evidence of a medieval gateway at Taunton Castle."

5 posted on 04/03/2008 5:22:46 PM PDT by blam (Secure the border and enforce the law)
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To: martin_fierro

That is hilarious!


6 posted on 04/03/2008 5:24:22 PM PDT by Hegemony Cricket (IX-XI -- numquam didici)
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To: Professional Engineer; blam; LibreOuMort
Absolutely!

I wonder if replicas are available (with instructions, of course). I've a daughter who'd love same -- not to mention her dad.

7 posted on 04/03/2008 5:26:46 PM PDT by sionnsar (trad-anglican.faithweb.com |Iran Azadi| 5yst3m 0wn3d - it's N0t Y0ur5 (SONY) | UN: Useless Nations)
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To: Hegemony Cricket

Verily, by my trothe!


8 posted on 04/03/2008 5:27:32 PM PDT by martin_fierro (< |:)~)
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To: martin_fierro

Shame on you. That was bad. And very funny!


9 posted on 04/03/2008 5:28:34 PM PDT by Grizzled Bear ("Does not play well with others.")
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To: martin_fierro


10 posted on 04/03/2008 5:28:58 PM PDT by Viking2002 (I hope the AG pounds the Mann Act up Spitzer's ass with a sharp stick.)
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To: blam

Truly weird. The implication is that it is better to have the taxpayer foot the bill than to have this item in private hands. I get the impression museum people see the public purse as their personal piggy bank.


11 posted on 04/03/2008 5:33:54 PM PDT by Zhang Fei
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To: blam

one of the classiest watches I ever saw was called an “astrolabe.”


12 posted on 04/03/2008 5:34:53 PM PDT by the invisib1e hand (can u feel the unity?)
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To: blam

And it runs Yellow Dog Linux!


13 posted on 04/03/2008 5:37:57 PM PDT by Petronski (Nice job, Hillary. Now go home and get your shine box.)
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To: martin_fierro

The Most Clever Post Ever!


14 posted on 04/03/2008 5:39:35 PM PDT by SunTzuWu
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To: sionnsar

Years ago at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry there was a display of a traveling collection of “compendiums”. These were pocket size, or nearly so, combinations of several navigational instruments: compass, sundial, astrolabe, magnifier, even entire maps, made of hinged brass or bronze sections. Fascinating!


15 posted on 04/03/2008 5:42:45 PM PDT by elcid1970 (;^))
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To: Old Sarge

PING!!


16 posted on 04/03/2008 5:51:12 PM PDT by MS.BEHAVIN (Women who behave rarely make history)
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To: sionnsar

Don’t know about replicas...I remember picking up a few postcards of one at the Mariner’s museum in Virginia. They may have something in their store.


17 posted on 04/03/2008 6:30:14 PM PDT by Sacajaweau ("The Cracker" will be renamed "The Crapper")
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To: martin_fierro

A movie!


18 posted on 04/03/2008 6:48:27 PM PDT by aculeus
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To: blam

bflr


19 posted on 04/03/2008 6:58:12 PM PDT by fishtank (Fenced BORDERS, English LANGUAGE, Patriotic CULTURE: A good plan.)
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To: blam
There was a show on the "History Channel" about the antikythera mechanism found off that Island maybe 100 years ago. It dated to roughly 150 BC and probably originated on the Island of Rhodes.

The mechanism was incredibly complex and accurate. Also beautifully made with many wheels and gears and thousands of inscriptions in a small device you could carry in your hands. Whoever made that was definitely smarter than the average bear.

20 posted on 04/03/2008 7:01:32 PM PDT by yarddog
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To: yarddog
"There was a show on the "History Channel" about the antikythera mechanism found off that Island maybe 100 years ago. "

Yup. We have had postings on FR about it. It was named from the nearby island where it was found.

21 posted on 04/03/2008 7:06:00 PM PDT by blam (Secure the border and enforce the law)
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To: blam; StayAt HomeMother; Ernest_at_the_Beach; 1ofmanyfree; 24Karet; 3AngelaD; 49th; ...

· join list or digest · view topics · view or post blog · bookmark · post a topic ·

 
Gods
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Thanks Blam.

To all -- please ping me to other topics which are appropriate for the GGG list.
GGG managers are Blam, StayAt HomeMother, and Ernest_at_the_Beach
 

· Google · Archaeologica · ArchaeoBlog · Archaeology magazine · Biblical Archaeology Society ·
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22 posted on 04/03/2008 10:04:59 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (https://secure.freerepublic.com/donate/_____________________Profile updated Saturday, March 29, 2008)
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To: martin_fierro

Classic!


23 posted on 04/03/2008 10:08:50 PM PDT by DieHard the Hunter (Is mise an ceann-cinnidh. Cha ghill mi do dhuine. Fg am bealach.)
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To: blam

The Astrolabist’s Tale was so bawdy that Chaucer’s publisher ordered it to be stricken from the first edition.


24 posted on 04/04/2008 6:16:18 AM PDT by bert (K.E. N.P. +12 . Never say never (there'll be a VP you'll like))
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To: blam
"The existence of this simple, practical device sheds new light on Chaucer’s treatise: it supports the idea that Chaucer’s work was a piece of popular science writing, understandable to more than just the elite. “It suggests that this kind of knowledge wasn’t too arcane or academic,” says Bennett."

*****BREAKING NEWS FLASH*****

**People Born Hundreds of Years Ago Not Necessarily Morons**

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming....

25 posted on 04/04/2008 7:05:13 AM PDT by Eepsy (The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.)
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To: martin_fierro

ehehe! Somebody has WAY too much time on their hands...


26 posted on 04/04/2008 7:09:55 AM PDT by ctdonath2 (The average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. - Ratatouille)
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To: martin_fierro

That is, hands down, the best derivative AYBABTU ... only the original surpasses it.


27 posted on 04/04/2008 7:13:58 AM PDT by ArrogantBustard (Western Civilization is Aborting, Buggering, and Contracepting itself out of existence.)
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To: Professional Engineer

Very interesting device. Usually, astrolabes were not as intricate as this one appears to be.


28 posted on 04/04/2008 7:35:27 AM PDT by AFPhys ((.Praying for President Bush, our troops, their families, and all my American neighbors..))
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To: martin_fierro

Wow, “Cats,” someone spent some time putting together this spoof!


29 posted on 04/04/2008 10:06:33 AM PDT by colorado tanker (Number nine, number nine, number nine . . .)
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