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
“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 :