Archive for July, 2013

The Pentathlon: The Problematic Long Jump

By: The Scribe on July, 2013

ancient long jumpIn many ways, the long jump of the Ancient Greek Pentathlon, held during the games at Olympus, was very similar to the event in today’s modern Olympic competitions. Just as they do today, jumpers in the ancient games would land their jumps in a raked sandpit… or did they? Some historians suggest that rather than having a fifteen meter long sandpit, the area was simply a section of track dug up for the event that would be covered over afterward. 

What we do know is that the long jump was considered one of the hardest events at the ancient games, due to the great deal of skill involved in completing the jump. Unlike modern jumpers who are able to take a long running start, the event in Ancient Greece only gave jumpers a short running start and they had to jump once they reached a target board at the front of the pit.

Jumpers also carried stone or lead weights in each hand, called halteres. These weights were forward at the beginning of the jump and then backward at the height of the jump, thereby increasing the athlete’s momentum and changing their center of gravity. The jumper could then stretch his legs outward and forward to increase the final distance!

Because of the skill and precision involved in completing the jump, we know that flute music was often played during this portion of the Pentathlon so that athletes could use the music’s rhythm to help with getting into the right movement rhythm with the halteres.

halteresSome scholars have tried to recreate the ancient long jump as a multiple jump—where the athlete would take three or five jumps in a row across the landing area—based on a claim from one ancient source that says a man named Phayllos of Kroton, one of the greatest long jumpers in ancient history, made a 55 foot long jump (16.5 meters) in his event. Now, considering that the landing areas were only about 15 feet long—and most trained athletes have difficulty jumping more than three meters in one standing jump—the thought is that the jumps must have been multiple and the total counted as the final distance.

That said… no one can say for sure either way how this event was run, but what’s perhaps more important is the fact that this is one more event that has stood the test of time. Several thousand years later, we’re still cheering on long jumpers in the Olympics every few years!

The Pentathlon: Jumpin’ Javelins!

By: The Scribe on July, 2013

javelinThe second event of the Pentathlon at the ancient Greek Olympics was the javelin throw—possibly the most relevant of the five events to the competitors’ military service requirements. All five of the events in the Pentathlon were considered useful skills for battle.

Because the javelin is a lighter piece of equipment than the spear, it was the one object in the Pentathlon that could literally be used as a weapon instead of a piece of athletic gear. Since the javelin is a throwing weapon, it transitioned well into an object of competition.

Javelin-throwing took place directly on the running track, allowing the athletes to take a short run forward before throwing the javelin as far as possible. The javelins used in the ancient Olympics were made of wood with a small bronze tip, and according to artwork of Olympic athletes of the time, they were approximately as tall as a man.

The main difference between a competition javelin and a battle javelin was the weight—because the aim of the competition was distance and not “how deeply can your javelin spear the enemy”, it was lightened and a leather thong was added for accuracy.

Pottery_JavelinUnlike modern javelin throwing which doesn’t have any sort of grip assist, the ancient Greeks would hold onto the leather thong—called an ankyle—that would be wrapped around the center of the javelin. When the athlete released the javelin for flight, the leather would unwind and spiral the javelin, helping to keep it on its intended path.

Another version of the event saw the javelin thrown toward a target from a seated position on horseback, but this wasn’t actually included in the games at Olympia. However, it was both a popular and important feature of the games for Hera at Argos (held the year after the Olympic games).

The Pentathlon: Throw that Discus, Son!

By: The Scribe on July, 2013

Discobolus_Kleomelos_Louvre_G111While modern Olympic athletes train in specific sports for years and years to be the best in their area, the athletes of ancient Greece had a much more intense calling, specifically those who competed in the Pentathlon. The Pentathlon was made up of five different events, and while we don’t have any surviving texts that explain exactly what qualified someone as the “winner” of the event, we do know that the “Ultimate Victor” needed to win three of the five events. Take that, modern pentathlon!

Discus throwing was one of the five events in the ancient pentathlon (and is not included in the modern version). It’s an event in which an athlete throws a heavy disc, or “discus”, as far as possible. The winner is the athlete who can throw it farther than the other competitors.

Present evidence dates the ancient pentathlon, and discus throwing, as far back as 708 B.C. Originally, the discus was shaped out of stone, though later versions were made of bronze, lead, or iron—which we know from archaeological excavations that have found ancient discs from the sport!

discobolusThe diameter of the excavated discs ranges from between 17 and 35 centimeters, and they tend to weigh between 1.3 and 6.6 kg—quite the range of size and weight, but written evidence provides an explanation: Each city where athletes trained had its own weight standard, while some major differences come as a result of differently sized discs for men versus boys.

When it came to the Olympics, however, three discs of standardized sizes were kept in the Sikyonian treasury. Gotta keep things fair, after all!

The sport’s enduring legacy through the millennia is probably helped by several ancient Greek statues and paintings of discus throwers—notably, Myron’s Discobolus statue (pictured to the left) from the 5th century B.C.

The Ancient Art of Weather Predictions

By: The Scribe on July, 2013

weathervaneAnd just like today’s meteorologists, people in the past didn’t always get things right either.

Attempting to predict the weather is a task that’s been around for millennia. As far back as 650 BC, the Babylonians used astrology and cloud patterns to try and figure out what to wear that week, and a few hundred years later, Aristotle wrote about weather patterns and predictions in his 340 BC work Meteorologica.

While the obvious answer to “how’d they do it?” is certainly “looked up,” a more unconventional (to us) method was to observe animals and insects. Folk belief stated that roosters and frogs made noise in the evenings to predict rain the next day, and that whole business about a groundhog seeing its shadow and “predicting” another six weeks of winter? That’s a holdover from this old way of weather forecasting.

We do have evidence that around 300 BC, both Indian astronomers and the Chinese were developing their own methods of weather forecasting. Some of these methods relied on observed patterns of events, also known as pattern recognition. Over time, the accumulated data of pattern observation would develop into weather lore, which became the standard by which weather was predicted in a society.

During the Arab Agricultural Revolution, an Iraqi alchemist and agriculturalist named Ibn Wahshiyya translated a book called Nabatean Agriculture from Babylonian Aramaic, which was a treatise on the subject that included information on ancient Babylonian weather and agriculture. For example, it discussed how the observation of planetary astral alterations could assist in forecasting atmospheric changes; how observation of lunar phases could predict rain; how wind direction and movement could help forecast the weather.

It was a significant work on weather and agriculture for 904 AD, and it greatly contributed to scientific development in the Muslim world at this time—and it really wasn’t until 1835 and the invention of the electric telegraph that the modern age of weather forecasting as we know it truly began!

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