It is not often you get to hear from one of the world’s leading authorities on Roman Coins. In the new episode of the Archaeology Hour, Vincent Drost, Roman coin expert at England’s British Museum, speaks to us about 22,000 coins found at Seaton Down in the recent past. The coins gives us insight into the Roman monetary system and its empire-wide mints. We also discuss why so many such coin hoards were buried and never recovered.
One of the Seaton Down coins was the millionth object cataloged by the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Image: Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum
More images of the Seaton Down coins can be found at:
Next Christine Madigan (voted best Brit accent) gives us an overview of the current exhibit at the British Museum on The Celts. Working with the national Museum of Scotland and sources on the Continent, they have brought together some of the most remarkable finds over the years – magnificent pieces of jewelry and armor decorative in the distinctive Celtish style.
Finally NOAA archaeologist Bruce Terrell discusses a mysterious wreck found in six thousand fathoms off the coast of North Carolina. Far out on the Blake Plateau the little craft may be a coasting schooner blown far off course – or perhaps a rare Bermuda Sloop. Coasting schooners are represented by the vessel found at Brown’s Ferry in the Black River near Georgetown SC.
Excavated by Alan Albright and later worked on by the author, the wreck tells us much about how these craft were built and operated. Bermuda sloops, however, are poorly documented. The National Maritime Museum in UK has drawings made by the Admiralty (they were that impressed by the speed and handling of the sloops) but wreckage has never been found and verified.
There MAY be a wreck of one off Turks & Caicos and Nick Hutchings of Bermuda has been planning an expedition to it for some years now. The Bermuda Sloop Foundation has built a replica from modern materials based on a painting. The North Carolina ‘mystery’ wreck has yet to be examined by an archaeologist. Terrell tells us about the discovery and attempts to identify it.
According to the latest post from John Fardoulis, up to three excavation teams are working each day on the Antikythera wreck site for a total of four and a half hours (at 90 minutes per team). The photo below is the first underwater picture from the site and shows the water dredge being worked by an archaeologist. We see fish and gravel…no artifacts. Previous reports indicate that items have been found but any pictures of this material is to be released by the Greek authorities.
“The underwater excavation is currently in full swing, with multiple 2-3 diver teams making the most of their bottom time each day. A very detailed map has been created for the site by an underwater robot at the beginning of summer and last year, meaning that everything retrieved from the shipwreck can be plotted on this blueprint, which helps us better understand the shipwreck by studying the spatial relationship between objects.”
Additional pictures are being posted at the Antikythera Gallery at http://wp.me/P5zmjV-38
It’s not much, but some news is coming out of the Antikythera project ahead of official announcements from the Greeks. Lead technical diver Phil Short reports: “Work on site this year has located numerous artefacts and excavation and recovery continue. Publication of artefact images is restricted by the Ephorate of Antiquities until their press release but will follow.”
In the meantime, the residents of the island are very much involved in the project. According to Short: “The Mayor of Antikythera commissioned information boards of the ‘Return to Antikythera’ project to display throughout the town including this one with the spear recovered in 2014 taken by Brett Seymour of the U.S. NPS for project sponsor Hublot.”
Phil Short’s wife, Gemma Smith, is the only woman tech diver on the project. She recently did a “fly over” over the site by a remotely operated vehicle. It was used to map locations of the artifacts before their removal.
From this we can infer that artifacts are being located and then mapped “in situ” (mapped ‘in place’ before removal) – indicating the very conservative excavation approach being used by the lead investigators – entirely appropriate on a wreck of this importance.
In the meantime, preparations are underway for the Anitkythera exhibit at the Antiquities Museum in Basel, Switzerland. Andrea Bignasca, at the museum, reports the arrival of the “Odysseus” statue which will be a part of the exhibit. There will be a full disclosure of the current project finds on September 25th at the Museum when the exhibit opens.
Let’s hope we hear from the Greeks well before then!
John Fardoulis reports from the Antikythera wreck site this morning: “This is a live update from over the Antikythera shipwreck. The archaeologists in our team dived the wreck for the first time today, a major milestone. Stay tuned for more information!”
Hopefully we will hear more during the day – but it may not be what we are hoping for. Project spokesman Yanis Bitsakis tells us that major details (which will surely include the hoped for spectacular discoveries) will be controlled by the Greek Ministry of Culture and will be revealed in a joint conference at Basel, Switzerland on September 25th.
As this is written, materials are being shipped to the Antiquities Museum in Basel where there will be a major exhibit on the Antikythera wreck. At 11am on the 25th there will be an announcement on the current project finds.
We are still hoping that any spectacular finds will at least be immediately announced, even if details are withheld. We have also asked for a map of the site so that we could report on daily excavation progress – but again Bitsakis tells us the map is regarded as too sensitive to release. We haver also asked for photographs of artifacts as they are found – but again this will be controlled by the Ministry of Culture which currently plans to make disclosures only at the September 25th conference.
It is not hyperbole to say that the entire world is hanging on what may emerge from the sands of Antikythera. Let’s hope there will be a change of heart and more substantial information will be released on a daily basis.
What can be inferred from what we know so far? The fact that the lead archaeologists, Foley and Theodoulou have made the first dives may indicate that they have inspected the prep work on the site. This has included the laying down of the excavated grid, establishment of datum lines and points, and positioning of the excavation dredge and artifact recovery documentation and recovery system. We do know that metal doctors have found hot spots on the wreck mound so it is possible excavation may begin in these areas.
We’ll keep in touch with the project and report whatever emerges!
Divers are now over the site at Antikythera. They are making the last preparations before digging into the sands over the wreck – overburden that may at last reveal more of the contents of a wreck that has astonished the world with magnificent marbles and bronzes from ancient Greece.
Monday and today will see setup of excavation controls over the wreck site. On land, archaeological excavation is relatively simple. The site is squared off on a grid, usually one meter squares aligned with a north-south axis, soil is then removed with shovels, then trowels and artifacts carefully noted as to location and depth. The soil is then carted off in a wheel barrow to be screened for smaller artifacts and organic remains such as seeds, pollen etc. It’s a simple process that can be learned in a few weeks.
But add 40-60 meters of water over the heads of the workers and everything changes. A lot. The past ten days or so have seen the Antikythera teams of Greeks and other nationals haul tons of equipment to the little island and then assembly it for one of the most technologically demanding dives ever mounted in Greek waters. Most of the gear and the preparation concerns the safety of the crew and archaeologists.
The underwater environment means life support – in this case mixed gas rigs that have to be assembled and checked. The original dive in 1900 killed one diver and injured two more. They were diving on air and had minutes on the bottom. This time a team of technical divers will hand-hold the archaeologists. They will have 90 minutes of bottom time but will need to decompress for another hour or more to avoid the ‘bends’ – gas bubbles in the blood. We have chosen one technical diver to follow, Gemma Smith – but it takes an entire team of such experts to keep the archaeologists safe.
Smith, with others, has now completed test dives on the site. She reports on her Face book page, “Absolutely buzzing after my first ever dive on the site of the Antikythera shipwreck. An hour’s bottom time at 60m rigging the site, ready for the archeology to begin tomorrow, and I’m so excited to see what we find!”
‘Rigging the site’ means setting up the control grid and bringing down the dredging equipment from the surface. On Sunday diver, photographer John Fardoulis reported, “Lead divers will set up moorings and lower dredging equipment near the wreck, which is expected to take place tomorrow and Tuesday, subject to weather. Everything’s going to plan, and a lot of preparation is required before excavating can begin.”
Wednesday will see the first handfuls of sand sucked into the water dredge – probably worked by archaeologist Brendan Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, one of the leaders of the project alongside Dr. Theotokis Theodoulou of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports. The dredge will be held above the surface of the sand. The archaeologists will fan sand up from the bottom and into the current of water being sucked into the dredge. It will obviously be a slow and meticulous process!
Excavation will take the form of trenches within the grid squares. If material is encountered, the trenches will most likely be expanded until the entire square is excavated. This is clearly not work that will be completed in one or two seasons. The Archaeology Hour will report on updates as they are received. In the meantime you can hear an interview with Foley prior to leaving for the the project at http://archaeologyhour.podomatic.com
Brendan Foley (bending at left) inspects progress as teaches prepare cables for the water dredge. Note essential high tech component by the cable in the foreground – Duct Tape (work in the vacuum of space and underwater!)
You can connect with the project’s own blog at http://antikythera.whoi.edu/blog/
This weekend scientists, divers and support staff will begin to converge off the Greek Island of Antikythera to mount a technologically advanced excavation of an ancient wreck that in 1901 yielded an astonishing array of marble and bronze artworks along with coins and a navigational computer that continues to astound experts.
Sponge divers discovered the Antikythera wreck in 1900. In the following year they raised bronze and marble sculptures and parts of sculptures that amazed the art world and scientists then, and ever since.
Last year Greek and American archaeologists returned to the site to inspect and map it. They had the advantage of the latest available technology from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and other sources. What they found astonished them. In an exclusive interview with the Archaeology Hour, the project’s American leader, archaeologist Brendan Foley, spoke about what lay deep beneath them. “We were able to fully map the site and produced a three dimensional image of the sea bottom. We were shocked to discover the wreck was much larger than earlier work had indicated – 30 to 50 meters (90-100 ft) long! The hull timbers were 11 cm (approx. 41/2”) thick. This would make the wreck bigger than the pleasure barges Caligula built for his artificial lake and they were the largest Roman era ships known.”
“This raises the question of what else may be on the ship. At this point of course we simply do not know – but the speculation has been exciting indeed!”
In 1900 the Greek sponge divers were working in hardhat rigs that allowed them only minutes of bottom time in which to rig marble horses and bronze statues for recovery. One died of the bends (nitrogen gas bubbles in the blood) and two were paralyzed.
The next few weeks over the wreck safety for the archaeologists will be a major factor. The dive teams will consist of a ‘technical diver’ well versed in the new diving technologies to be used, and an archaeologist. Both will be diving on closed circuit mixed gas systems that will allow them to spend as long as 90 minutes on the bottom.
“There will still be a need for an hour or so of decompression to prevent bends, “said Foley, “so each dive will take almost three hours. With this amount of time we expect to complete a great deal of excavation.”
In 1953 explorer Jacques Cousteau located the wreck with the help of MIT technology
Wizard’ Doc Edgerton. Cousteau returned in 1976 to excavate with an airlift and recovered some small bronzes.
“The depth would make an air lift difficult to handle – and we want to handle the excavation and possible finds as delicately as possible,” said Foley. “So, instead, we will used a water dredge – similar to an air lift except that we will hold it above the excavation layer and fan sand into it with our hands. This will allow for delicate retrieval of finds and help a great deal with visibility.”
Delicacy and caution will be essential considering the nature of what the sands of Antikythera may reveal. One object from the 1900 dive that has garnered more attention than any other is the ‘Antikythera mechanism,” a fused clump of finely crafted gears that is thought to be a highly sophisticated navigational computer.
According to Foley, “In its original state the metal components of the mechanism were thin sections of copper alloy. After thousands of years on the sea bottom they would now have the consistency of Fimo craft clay – very fragile indeed.”
It is not surprising that the wreck would have such a sophisticated device aboard. The massive craft appears to have been loaded with amazing art treasures from Greece. Coins found on the ship by Cousteau date it to 70-67 B.C. They were produced by the Roman mint at Pergamum.
This was in the same general timeframe that Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix mounted an expedition into Greece and Asia Minor in 87 BC. This was close to a decade before the sinking of the Antikythera wreck, according to the coin dating. It was long thought that the ship might have been bringing treasures back to Rome for Sulla.
Foley’s working hypothesis is that the ship may have been a large grain carrier. “The marble and bronze artworks would have been difficult to stabilize inside the hull and would have made it difficult to trim the vessel. It makes sense that a grain carrier might have been used and that grain sacks could have been used to pack around the statuary.”
Last year divers found a seven foot long bronze spear not associated with any of the recovered bronzes. This leads Foley to believe that other major bronzes may still be found. Earlier recoveries also included separated heads, arms and feet that may also be from buried bronzes.
Certainly the ship was important, but there is still doubt as to who ordered it to be packed with such fabulous treasures. “We know some of Sulla’s ship’s sank north of Antikythera – but we do not think this is one of his ships at this time, “ said Foley.
Foley will be very much hands on during the project. He will be one of the divers. His dive buddy is Gemma Smith, one of the technical divers. For Smith the dive will be especially satisfying, she is in the midst of a long career as a technical or scientific diver – despite being told early in her career that she would never qualify in this demanding field.
Hear the Brendan Foley interview on the next edition of The Archaeology Hour at :
The Archaeology Hour podcast is now live on Podomatic and you can follow it by opening the link and downloading the broadcast. The pilot edition features interview with Marc Bernier of Parks Canada on the HMS Erebus expedition lead-up (a results interview will follow) and a second feature with Irene Morfini, one of the two young archeologists who have made a major new tomb discovery in Egypt. The broadcast also features pieces by Rob Steele on archaeological travel to Belize, a piece by Elle Shepard on the exhibition of the 1600s ship Vasa in Sweden, and some off-beat archaeological news from Brannon Lamar.
New Archaeology Hour broadcasts are to follow shortly. They will feature British Museum coin expert Vincent Drost on the Seaton Down Roman coin hoard found in England, Archaeologist Bruce Terrellon a mystery ship found in six thousand fathoms of the coast of North Carolina and more contributions from Steele, Shepard and Lamar.
Major new story to be featured in the near future will be an exclusive interview with Brendan Foley, American partner with the Greek Government in the upcoming (next week!) excavation of the long fabled Antikythera wreck. Found in 1900 by Greek sponge divers, the wreck produced a fabulous hoard of marble and bronze statuary. Cousteau returned to the site in the 1950s and 1970s – but it took Foley’s team to discover that the wreck was far larger than originally thought. If the weather holds breathtaking finds may soon be revealed by the sands of Antikythera after more than two thousand years.
A new blog posting this coming weekend will feature an interview with Foley and the podcast will follow that shortly.