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New finds from the Antikythera shipwreck

The Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities recently announced that the latest season of diving at the famous Antikythera Shipwreck — notable among other things as the findspot of the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient Greek astronomical gearwork device now recognized to be the most complex and sophisticated scientific instrument surviving from antiquity — had located a concentration of large metal objects buried under the seabed, one of which was recovered: the right arm, lacking just two fingers, from a bronze statue. This news, while holding out exciting prospects for the 2018 campaign, is nevertheless like an eerie echo of the past.

When residents of Athens opened their morning newspapers on November 6, 1900, they found among the usual mix of foreign news and domestic politics a front-page story with the headline, “Ancient Statues Under the Sea.” It told how the Minister of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs, Spyridon Stais, had met Antonios Ekonomou, Professor of Archaeology at Athens University, who was representing a group of Greek sponge divers who claimed to have discovered a hoard of bronze statues at a depth of more than 60 meters near Cape Maleas in the southern Peloponnese. As proof, they had brought back a bronze right arm, missing only its thumb and part of the middle finger.

The divers quickly came to an agreement with the government. Using their brass-helmet-and-hose apparatus, they would scour the sea floor for artifacts at what the archaeologists realized must be the site of an ancient shipwreck, carrying up smaller objects and tying up larger ones so they could be raised to the surface, and the government would send a navy vessel to do the hauling and transporting and archaeologists to supervise. In compensation for their dangerous labor and for skipping a season of commercial sponge-fishing, the divers would be paid generously once the operations were over.

Within days, the troopship Mykali accompanied the sponge divers with their small boats to the shipwreck site, at last revealed to be off the small island of Antikythera in the straits between Crete and the Greek mainland. Work at the Antikythera Shipwreck lasted ten months, ending only when the divers reported that they had searched every accessible area and could do no more.

Image credit: The Antikythera Mechanism. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The yield of the 1900-1901 campaign was spectacular but also frustrating. The ship’s cargo turned out to comprise many luxury objects including bronze and marble statuary and fine glassware, to say nothing of the fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism. But the bronzes, the most valued of the salvaged artworks because ancient bronze statuary rarely escaped the melting pot, were shattered in fragments and only one, the so-called Youth of Antikythera, was recovered even nearly complete. Moreover, this was before anything resembling scientific archaeology was possible for an underwater site, so that little could be certain concerning the nature of the ship and its last voyage, though there was general agreement that it dated from roughly the last two centuries BCE (we can now narrow this to within a decade or so of 60 BCE) and that the cargo was being transported from the Aegean Sea to the west, likely Italy.

Since 2014 the Return to Antikythera project has revisited the shipwreck site for one or two diving campaigns each year, applying a dazzling range of new technologies to gather archaeological data, all of which should cast light on an ancient voyage of remarkable significance for our understanding of ancient economies, art, and science. As was the case in 1900-1901, the new investigations have had to work in the face of capricious weather conditions, and parts of the site were clearly worked over pretty thoroughly by the sponge divers. The latest finds, however, are in the location of the ship’s hold, and were protected from earlier excavation by boulders, under which there is excellent prospect of finding some of the missing bronzes and other parts of the cargo in untampered archaeological context — this would truly be a breakthrough!

Can we also hold out hope that missing pieces of the Antikythera Mechanism will turn up? All we know is that the fragments now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens were retrieved toward the end of the original operations in the summer of 1901, when the sponge divers were systematically searching whatever parts of the wreck site that they could reach, and perhaps the ship’s hold is not the most likely candidate for where such a delicate instrument would have been stored in transit. Perhaps, again, some of the brittle, corroded components had disintegrated beyond recognition or were accidentally crushed under a diver’s lead-soled boots. We have a good idea of what to look for, however: a system of gears that simulated the movements through the zodiac of the five planets known in ancient times (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), and substantial pieces of metal plates inscribed with texts describing the Mechanism’s features, the astronomical theories built into its inner workings, and predictions of eclipses and other astronomical phenomena. If any of this turned up, we would stand to learn a great deal more about ancient science and technology.

Featured image credit: Photo of the beach at the east of Kytheria, by Comzeradd. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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