Unprecedented exploration of Antikythera wreck yields new treasures
In the first underwater exploration of its kind, a Greek and international team of divers and archaeologists have used a new high-tech exosuit to reach deep waters in which the world-renowned Antikythera wreck has lain for two thousand years. Their investigation proved that remnants of the ships luxury cargo has survived for millennia on the sea floor as new treasures have been retrieved from the depths. According to a media release by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the rescued antiquities include tableware, ship components, and a giant bronze spear that would have belonged to a life-sized warrior statue.
The Antikythera wreck, located off the island of Antikythera in the Aegean Sea, is a famous underwater archaeological site thrown into the spotlight in 1900 when researchers discovered an incredible mechanical device, now known as the Antikythera mechanism. The metallic device consists of at least 30 different types of gears and is so complex that many consider it to be the first human-made analogue computer. After decades of research, scientists were able to determine that it shows the positions of the sun, moon, and planets as they move through the zodiac, predicts solar and lunar eclipses, and even marked key events such as the Pan-Hellenic games. The discovery of this unique form of ancient technology, along with other treasures, including finely carved bronze and marble statues, glassware, jewellery, and coins, led researchers to wonder what else may lie within the shipwreck.
Left: The original Antikythera mechanism (Wikipedia). Right: A reconstruction of the mechanism (anthonyokeeffe.com).
Over the decades, divers have attempted to investigate the ancient shipwreck, but dangerous conditions caused by the extreme depth of the submerged vessel prevented researchers exploring the site fully. However, a newly developed exosuit, which allows divers to descend to 300 metres for hours at a time without the need for decompressing upon returning to the surface, has now allowed marine archaeologists to finally return to the famous wreck.
Researchers used a newly-developed exosuit to explore the Antikythera wreck. Credit: Brendan Foley
During investigations between September 15 and October 7, 2014, researchers created a high-resolution 3D map of the site. Divers then recovered a series of finds which prove that much of the ship’s cargo is indeed still preserved beneath the sediment.
“Components of the ship, including multiple lead anchors over a metre long and a bronze rigging ring with fragments of wood still attached, prove that much of the ship survives,” said the WHOI in a media release. “The finds are also scattered over a much larger area than the sponge divers realized, covering 300 meters of the seafloor. This together with the huge size of the anchors and recovered hull planks proves that the Antikythera ship was much larger than previously thought, perhaps up to 50 meters long.” This would make the vessel the largest ancient shipwreck ever discovered.
Additional discoveries included a completely intact ceramic table jug, part of an ornate bed leg, and a 2-metre long bronze spear, which is believed to have belonged to a giant statue. “In 1901, four giant marble horses were discovered on the wreck by the sponge divers,” said the WHOI, “so these could have formed part of a complex of statues involving a warrior in a chariot that was pulled by the four horses.”
Return to Antikythera project chief diver Philip Short inspects the bronze spear recovered from the Antikythera Shipwreck. Credit: Brett Seymour, Return to Antikythera 2014 .
Divers discovered an intact "lagynos" ceramic table jug. Credit: Brett Seymour / Return to Antikythera 2014.
There has been speculation that the vessel, which was probably travelling from the coast of Asia Minor to Rome when lost, was carrying a soon-to-be-married woman and her dowry.
Archaeologists believe there are many more items from the cargo still to be found and remain hopeful of finding additional parts to the Antikythera mechanism, or other automata. They will be returning to the site next season to continue explorations.
Featured image: WHOI Diving Safety Officer Edward O'Brien "spacewalks" in the Exosuit, suspended from the Hellenic Navy vessel THETIS during the 2014 Return to Antikythera project. Credit: Brett Seymour / Return to Antikythera 2014 .
Location: Antikythera, Greece