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Exhibit at the National Museum

Archimedes and the crown of Hiero

In De Architectura (known in English as The Ten Books of Architecture) Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio has given us the famous "Eureka" story having to do with Archimedes. The Sage of Syracuse was charged by King Hiero with determining whether or not the monarch's golden crown really had all the original gold consigned to the smith for the job or whether the artisan had pulled a fast one by adulterating the gold with silver so he could keep some of the good stuff for himself. How could you tell? Not to worry, said Archy.

Shortly thereafter in the public baths, Archimedes lowered himself into the water and noticed the displaced water flowing over the rim of the bath, whereupon he is said to have run butt naked out into the streets of Syracuse screaming "Eureka!"—"I have found it!" —obviously not the changing room, but the principle of physics now named for him: "A body immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the displaced fluid." Then, in a scene right out of C.S.I. Syracuse, Archimedes got a tub of water, some gold and silver, splashed around a bit, and noticed that the crown and a lump of gold equal to the original amount did not displace the same amount of water; thus, the artisan had mixed in some silver, a lighter metal than gold. He had swindled the king. Vitruvius does not tell us what happened to ye Royal Crown Maker, but it probably wasn't community service.

That single word, "Eureka," is now synonymous with "great discovery" and is the name of the newest exhibit running (through Jan. 9, 2006) at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The exhibit is subtitled "The Genius of the Ancients" and is devoted to the science and technology of  ancient Greece.

Whoever wrote the brochure starts, amazingly, with, "Few remember that the Greeks preceded us in many fields of knowledge, ranging from geometry to medicine, from optics to astronomy; many modern theories derive from their studies, as do many applications considered for centuries real miracles, used for enjoyment, art, beauty, religion and work."

I don't know that "few remember". I thought everyone remembered. In any event, if you don't, now is the time to do some serious refreshing. The exhibit covers much of the ground floor of the museum, purposefully spilling into an outdoor space meant to simulate the Greek agora, the place of assembly, the market place.

There are wall displays
, hands-on machines and working models, extensive descriptions of ancient Greek steam machinery, watches, musical and astronomical instruments, as well as exhibits on life at court, theater, religion, medicine and botany—even a reconstruction of the Lighthouse at Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World (photo, left). There is a section given over to the empire and influence of Alexander and the existence of the great libraries at Alexandria, Athens and Pergamon.

To augment the display, the exhibit has some items from foreign museums, such as a terracotta oil-lamp in the form of a water-organ from the Louvre, and has dipped into its substantial collection of Greek items that are on permanent display in Naples, anyway, such as the Farnese Atlas (see that link).

Small quibble. One thing was missing—any mention of the Antikythera mechanism, supposedly an ancient mechanical computer designed to calculate astronomical positions. It was recovered in 1900–1901 from by sponge divers from a shipwreck off Point Glyphadia on the Greek island of Antikythera. The construction has been dated to the early 1st century BC. Technological artifacts of similar complexity did not reappear until the 14th century, when mechanical astronomical clocks were built in Europe.

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