In the spring of 1900, a group of Greek sponge divers were returning from North Africa when they were blown off course during a storm and forced to take shelter near the small island of Antikythera, located between Crete and Kythera in the Aegean Sea. While looking for clams for a meal, one of the divers discovered the remains of an ancient shipwreck, some 55 meters beneath the surface.
Subsequent excavations of the site yielded an astonishing haul, including bronze and marble statues, jewelry, furniture and glassware. Most notably, the divers recovered the fragments of an ancient mechanical device that would be dubbed the “Antikythera Mechanism.” Until the late 1950s, it lay in the National Museum in Athens, mistakenly identified as an astrolabe, a primitive instrument used to tell time and make astronomical measurements. But thanks to scholarly research, it is now thought to be an ancient “computer,” built to calculate the movements of stars and planets in order to predict astronomical events such as eclipses.
By dating coins and other recovered items, archaeologists were able to estimate that the loaded ship most likely crashed during a storm while on its way along an ancient shipping route from the coast of Asia Minor to Rome between 70 and 60 B.C. At the time, the glorious Greek civilization was on the decline after the Roman conquest of Greek cities.
Early explorations of the Antikythera site proved too risky to continue after one diver died of the bends and two more were paralyzed. Though famed explorer Jacques Cousteau would revisit the wreck in the 1970s, it remained undisturbed for decades after that, prompting long-running speculation as to what treasures still lay beneath the sea. Now, with the help of state-of-the-art technology, an international team of divers and archaeologists has carried out new investigations of the Antikythera shipwreck, yielding a number of stunning finds.
To begin with, the new team found remnants of the ancient ship strewn over some 1,000 feet of seafloor, a much larger area than the original divers realized. They also recovered planks that formed part of the ship’s hull, along with several lead anchors measuring more than three feet long. These components, along with the larger area of the wreck, suggest that the ship was much longer than previously believed, perhaps stretching up to 160 feet. “The evidence shows this is the largest ancient shipwreck ever discovered,” said Brendan Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who co-led the excavation efforts, in a press release “It’s the Titanic of the ancient world.”
The excavation team also recovered a bronze rigging ring with fragments of wood still attached, an intact table jug and the ornate leg of a bed, among other artifacts. The most remarkable object they found, however, was a bronze spear measuring 6.5 feet long. Foley and his colleagues believe that the spear may have been part of a statue of a warrior or the goddess Athena, or perhaps of an even larger horse-and-chariot sculpture. Divers on the original excavation in 1901 discovered four marble horses in the wreck, which Foley suggests could have originally been part of such a sculpture, accompanied by a warrior riding in a chariot and carrying the spear in his hand.
As the wreck is too deep to reach using regular scuba equipment, the divers used rebreather technology, which cleans carbon dioxide from exhaled air while introducing and recirculating oxygen, allowing divers to stay under for up to three hours at a time. The project also saw the first-ever use of a new robotic diving apparatus called the Exosuit, which allows its occupant to stay down up to 50 hours. The team plans to return to Antikythera next year to conduct further excavations, in the hopes that even more treasures still lurk beneath the seafloor. As team co-leader Theotokis Theodoulou of the Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities puts it: “We have a lot of work to do at this site to uncover its secrets.”