Explorers Return to Antikythera

On a morning early in April of 1900, before the twilight hours had washed the moon from the sky, two Grecian fishing boats left port at the island of Symi and set out for the northern coast of Africa.

The crew had a debt to pay. Once they crossed the Aegean Sea, they would sail along Libya and Tunisia, diving for sea sponge that they could later sell on the European market. But days after embarking, as they passed through the Grecian Archipelago, blustering winds and rough seas forced the vessels to drop anchor just off the eastern shore of a remote, rocky island called Antikythera.

While the divers waited for the storm to calm, they took turns donning a protective suit and copper helmet and used the opportunity to explore the seafloor. It was here, off of Point Glyphadia, that diver Ilias Stadiatis reemerged from the depths clasping a 2,000-year-old bronze arm in his grip. He had discovered the largest shipwreck of the ancient world.

In the ensuing months, with the assistance of the Hellenic Royal Navy and the Greek Department of Education, Stadiatis and his fellow divers were able to salvage an astounding array of treasure from the site, including larger-than-life bronze statues of gods and heroes, 36 marble statuettes, four giant marble horses, luxury glassware, furniture, and dozens of ceramic amphorae (two-handled urns used to hold oils or wine).

Now, over a century later, Greek authorities have granted an international team of divers and marine archaeologists a five-year extension to continue their ongoing excavation efforts at the famous site. The team, which consists of explorers from the Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in Greece and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, will build upon results obtained in their previous mission, called “Return to Antikythera.”

Researchers believe that the ship, which likely sank between 70 BC and 60 BC, was traveling along a major luxury trade route from Asia Minor to Rome when a violent storm drove it into the island’s jagged coast and sent it plunging to the ocean floor. The remaining wreckage rests on a steep underwater escarpment, at depths ranging from 114 feet to 197 feet, or 35 to 60 meters.

“The evidence shows this is the largest ancient shipwreck ever discovered,” Brendan Foley, mission Co-Director and Research Specialist at WHOI’s Department of Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering, said in a statement. “This is the Titanic of the ancient world.”

The initial exploration of the site proved treacherous for the sponge divers, who could only remain at such extreme depths for three minutes at a time. With many of the artifacts encrusted in shells, coral, and petrified sea animals, the rigorous task of cutting out and extracting the calcified treasures became a truly harrowing feat. Ultimately, the excavation was called off after the mission resulted in the death of one diver and the paralysis of two others.

Advances in technology lend more favorable odds to modern marine archaeologists.

In 1976, famed naval officer and underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau visited Antikythera at the invitation of the Greek government. With the aid of then-state-of-the-art scuba gear, Cousteau and his colleagues were able to plumb the wreckage for nearly 10 minutes at a time. Over the course of 27 days, they recovered hundreds of objects previously unseen at the site, such as bronze coins, gold jewelry, gemstones, and human skeletal remains.

Likewise, Dr. Foley and his team have benefited from even greater advances in underwater engineering. During the first phase of the “Return to Antikythera” mission, which lasted from 2012 until 2014, they created a 3D model of the wreckage using information gathered by an autonomous underwater robot equipped with stereocameras and sonar. These renderings include data on metal-rich hotspots nested in the seafloor, which will be useful in upcoming dives for detecting artifacts buried beneath the sediment.

In addition, the team uses diver propulsion vehicles and “James Bond-style” closed-circuit rebreathers that enable them to stay submerged for long enough to safely and effectively investigate the wreckage, which has far from surrendered all of its secrets. The divers remain tantalized by what may still lie submerged beneath the sand, untouched since the time of Caesar.

“The ship that sank at Antikythera was not merely a cargo ship,” Aggeliki Simosi, Director of the Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, said in a statement. “It was essentially a floating museum.”

The Antikythera Mechanism. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Among the most precious spoils yielded by the shipwreck is the famous Antikythera Mechanism, a masterpiece of ancient craftsmanship that historians consider the world’s first computer. Reconstructions of the complex device reveal that it functioned as an accurate astronomical calculator, predicting lunar and solar eclipses and describing the movements and exact positions of the planets on any given date. Nothing remotely comparable was created for another thousand years.

Foley hopes that excavations carried out under the newly issued extension will uncover similarly mesmerizing objects. He tells BTR that the team’s most rewarding find to date was that of a two-meter-long bronze spear that could not be matched to any of the larger statues previously retrieved from the site, indicating that there may be another bronze behemoth waiting in the deep. Furthermore, the sheer vastness of the distribution of artifacts hints at the demise of a second ship within the same fleet.

“One of the goals this year is to try to determine if it’s one shipwreck spread out across 300 meters of seafloor,” Foley explains, “or if it’s actually two distinct shipwrecks.”

In several weeks, the archaeologists will return to the Aegean to embark on the next leg of their exploration. According to Foley, the dream is to find an “undisturbed Antikythera,” a wreck unplumbed by prior excavations.

“Because the site has been intruded upon for more than a century, it gets really hard to disambiguate what’s myth and what’s fact,” he said.

Feature photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Too see photos of the 2012-2014 “Return to Antikythera” expedition, check them out on Live Science.