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Mathieu Ossendrijver in Science

Ancient Babylonians Used Geometry to Track the Planets

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Mathieu Ossendrijver in Science

The Babylonians were even more mathematically advanced than we thought. A new report published today in the journal Science concludes that the ancient people may have been using geometry to chart the movements of the planet Jupiter as early as 350 BCE— long before the 14th century, when European astronomers were thought to have pioneered the approach.

These findings are the result of years of work by Mathieu Ossendrijver, who literally wrote the book on the Babylonians’ use of math in astronomy. Ossendrijver has spent more than a decade analyzing the cuneiform markings on a set of stone tablets found in modern-day Iraq. The tablets have been sitting in the collection of the British Museum since 1881.

The Babylonians’ interest in astronomy is well established, but the calculations etched into four nearly complete tablets dating to between 350 BCE and 50 BCE are the first indication that the ancient astronomers had moved beyond simple arithmetic into geometrical concepts. The tablets' creators were focused on tracking Jupiter across the ecliptic, an invisible line that roughly represents the path of the Sun. They based their calculations on a trapezoid’s area, and its “long” and “short” sides. A newly discovered tablet dating to the same era, which has the same computation of Jupiter's movement in an arithmetical formulation, also helped solve the mystery. 

Ossendrijver’s findings represent a radical change in the timeline of astronomy. As the author writes in his report, “These computations predate the use of similar techniques by medieval European scholars by at least 14 centuries.”

The Babylonians were not the only people using geometry at that time, Ossendrijver notes, but they were the only ones using it in such an advanced manner. Greek astronomers like Aristarchus of Samos, Hipparchus, and Ptolemy incorporated geometry into their calculations, but limited their calculations to physical space. Babylonian calculations were more abstract and sophisticated, taking into consideration both velocity and time—an advancement that allowed them to accurately predict the movements of Jupiter along the ecliptic.

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For the First Time in 40 Years, Rome's Colosseum Will Open Its Top Floor to the Public
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The Colosseum’s nosebleed seats likely didn’t provide plebeians with great views of gladiatorial contests and other garish spectacles. But starting in November, they’ll give modern-day tourists a bird's-eye look at one of the world’s most famous ancient wonders, according to The Telegraph.

The tiered amphitheater’s fifth and final level will be opened up to visitors for the first time in several decades, following a multi-year effort to clean, strengthen, and restore the crumbling attraction. Tour guides will lead groups of up to 25 people to the stadium’s far-flung reaches, and through a connecting corridor that’s never been opened to the public. (It contains the vestiges of six Roman toilets, according to The Local.) At the summit, which hovers around 130 feet above the gladiator pit below, tourists will get a rare glimpse at the stadium’s sloping galleries, and of the nearby Forum and Palatine Hill.

In ancient Rome, the Colosseum’s best seats were marble benches that lined the amphitheater’s bottom level. These were reserved for senators, emperors, and other important parties. Imperial functionaries occupied the second level, followed by middle-class spectators, who sat behind them. Traders, merchants, and shopkeepers enjoyed the show from the fourth row, and the very top reaches were left to commoners, who had to clamber over steep stairs and through dark tunnels to reach their sky-high perches.

Beginning November 1, 2017, visitors will be able to book guided trips to the Colosseum’s top levels. Reservations are required, and the tour will cost around $11, on top of the normal $14 admission cost. (Gladiator fights, thankfully, are not included.)

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Courtesy of the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Discover Ancient Sunken City in the Mediterranean
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Courtesy of the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari

Early on July 21, 365 CE, an 8.5 magnitude earthquake shook the eastern Mediterranean, triggering a powerful tsunami. The Egyptian city of Alexandria was damaged, towns crumbled on the island of Crete, and the Roman port city of Neapolis, located on the coast of North Africa, was largely swallowed by the wave, according to historical records. Now, after being hidden under water for more than 16 centuries, the remains of Neapolis have been discovered by archaeologists off the coast of northeast Tunisia. This, according to the AFP, confirms accounts that the city was a casualty of the ancient natural disaster.

Following several years of exploration, researchers from the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari in Italy have discovered nearly 50 acres of watery ruins near the modern-day city of Nabeul. They include streets, monuments, homes, mosaics, and around 100 tanks used to make garum, a fish-based sauce that was so popular in ancient Rome and Greece that it's been likened to ketchup. 

These containers suggest that Neapolis was likely a major producer of garum, making the salty condiment an integral part of the city's economy. "Probably the notables of Neapolis owed their fortune to garum," expedition head Mounir Fantar told the AFP.

Neapolis ("new city" in Greek) was originally founded in the 5th century BCE. While it was an important Mediterranean hub, its name doesn't appear too often in ancient writings. According to The Independent, it may because the city sided with the ancient city-state of Carthage—founded in the 9th century BCE by a seafaring people known as the Phoenicians—in the last of a series of three wars, called the Punic Wars, against Rome.

The Third Punic War stretched from 149 to 146 BCE, and led to the burning of Carthage. (It was later rebuilt as a Roman city by Julius Caesar.) Neapolis may have been punished for its wayward allegiance, which may explain why it's rarely mentioned in historical accounts.

You can view a video of the city's ruins below.

[h/t AFP]

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