Marine archaeologists announced new findings from their most recent excavation of the roughly 2,000-year-old Antikythera wreck.
A bronze statue’s orphaned arm. A corroded disc adorned with a bull. Preserved wooden planks. These are among the latest treasures that date back to the dawn of the Roman Empire, discovered amid the ruins of the Antikythera shipwreck, a sunken bounty off the coast of a tiny island in Greece.
Marine archaeologists working on a project called Return to Antikytheraannounced these findings on Wednesday from their most recent excavationof the roughly 2,000-year-old wreck, which was first discovered 115 years ago. They said the haul hints at the existence of at least seven more bronze sculptures still buried beneath the seafloor. Bronze sculptures from that era are rare because they were often melted down to make swords, shields and other items. Only about 50 intact examples have survived, so if the team can salvage the submerged statues, it would be a remarkable recovery of ancient artifacts.
“Say you discovered there are another seven Leonardo paintings that no one knew existed and the prospect of finding them is dangling before your eyes,” said Kenneth Lapatin a curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles who was not involved in the project. “That’s what this is like for classical archaeologists and those who study ancient Greek and Roman art.”
For more than a century the wreck has yielded a trove of antiquities, from bronze and marble statues of Olympian gods and heroes to the mysterious Antikythera mechanism, a hand-held device for tracking planetary movements and predicting eclipses that is often called the “first computer.” Last year the team also recovered human skeletal remains at the site from which they have retrieved DNA.
Further investigation into the vessel’s cargo and wooden structure could provide insights into where the ship came from, where it was going and who were the crew that perished when it went down.
A Handful of Treasure
When sponge divers first found the wreck in the early 1900s, they uncovered six bronze right arms. But it took decades and new technologies to uncover the seventh.
During their most recent dives in September, the team used a custom built high-tech metal detector to uncover items hidden in the sand. Alexander Sotiriou, one of the project’s divers, stumbled upon the bronze arm buried more than a foot and a half below the sediment at a depth of about 160 feet below the sea surface.
“We knew from the very first moment that this was a significant finding,” Mr. Sotiriou said. He spent most of his hour’s worth of air trying to pry the heavy object from beneath a boulder. Other divers with the project took over and retrieved the green, encrusted limb that extended from shoulder to middle finger tip.
“It’s missing a couple of fingers but it’s still a magnificent finding. You can see the beauty of this arm,” he said. “You see the muscles, you see the tendons, you see the fingers. You see all the details that you can admire on bare skin.”
Because the limbs appeared to have been fragments of statues, rather than individual parts being transported, the researchers believe that the rest of their bodies are waiting to be found.
A Disc for a ‘First Computer?’
During its most recent dives, the team also uncovered a small, bronze disc with four knobs. Each tab on the trinket had a hole in it which may have been used to screw the object into something to act as a cover. It was just as corroded as the arm.
When Brendan Foley, co-director for the project and an archaeologist at Lund University in Sweden, found the item he couldn’t believe his luck. He thought it may have been a missing piece to the Antikythera mechanism — perhaps the rarest needle in their underwater haystack.
“This thing emerges and I said ‘Holy cow! Come over here guys. Doesn’t this look like part of the mechanism?’” he said. “And we all started laughing because it couldn’t possibly be. But it sure looks convincing.”
They sent it to a laboratory in Athens for X-rays and found that beneath its green and black decay there was a decorative bull. They will perform more experiments to find out what it is. Although they have not ruled out whether it could be a part of the Antikythera mechanism they said that it could just as easily be an adornment of the ship or a vase.
“If it is from the Antikythera mechanism it is a very, very perfect find,” said Angeliki G. Simosi, director of the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in Athens. “All of the world will speak about it.”
The Story from the Depths
The ship that carried the treasures of Antikythera was something like an ancient supertanker or luxury liner that carried grain and artwork for trading in the Mediterranean, including marble and bronze statues being shipped to the richest of the rich, according to Dr. Foley. The site thus provides a peek not just into the lives of the elite, but also into the blooming global and urban society at the beginning of the Roman Empire.
“We’re looking at the biggest ancient ship ever investigated by underwater archaeologists,” said Dr. Foley.
Measuring an estimated 160-feet long, the ship was like the Titanic of its time. It met its iceberg in the form of a violent storm that smashed it against the island’s cliff, scientists believe. The ship then had a turbulent trip to the bottom of the ocean where it most likely rolled several times, flinging its treasure, and goods across the seafloor. In the two millenniums since, earthquakes and landslides have rocked its remains, further breaking and burying its trove of Hellenistic and Classical pottery and artwork.
But in their latest dives, the team recovered wooden planks and pieces of the ship’s frame, which can help nail down its country of origin, which have recently come into question.
For decades people referred to it as a Roman shipwreck, like in Jacques Cousteau’s documentary “Diving for Roman Plunder,” but the team’s findings since 2012 — such as a chemical analysis of lead on the ship’s equipment that trace it back to northern Greece and the personal possessions they found with Greek names etched on them — are changing that narrative, Dr. Foley said. “It’s starting to look an awful lot like a Greek-built, Greek-crewed ship, not a Roman-Italian vessel.”
They plan to send wood samples to researchers in Tel Aviv to determine what trees were used and where they came from, according to Dr. Foley, which could help settle the debate.
And Dr. Foley says future dives in 2018 will reveal more.
“We’re setting the stage,” he said, “but the truly spectacular is out there tantalizing us.”