Just when we thought that there weren’t any old world treasures left to be discovered from the depths of the oceans, a major underwater expedition conducted by an international group of deep sea divers and marine archaeologists, in the waters of the distant Antikythera island off the southern coast of Greece, has resulted in the recovery of some of the most astonishingly precious shipwreck treasures.A bit of historical background, before going any further. Although a tiny remote island with a modern-day population of only 44, Antikythera was an important trade route during antiquity and was also a base for Cilician pirates. It was here that one of the biggest shipwrecks of the ancient maritime history was discovered by a team of divers, off Point Glyphadia, in 1900. Records show that this huge Roman cargo vessel, dating as far back as 70-60 BC, sank some 2000 years ago after meeting with violent sea storm.
Historians believe that it was a commercial ship carrying looted Greek treasures from the coast of Asia Minor west all the way to Rome, quite possibly for the occasion of one of Julius Caesar’s triumphal parades. Fast forward to 1900, a group of sponge divers, headed by Captain Dimitrios Kondos, decided to halt at the island on their journey back from Africa, while waiting out a terrible storm. It was when they began diving in search of sponges that they came across one of the grandest ancient treasure troves.
Among the artifacts retrieved from the Antikythera wreck were four magnificent marble horses, ornate bronze statues, intricate glassworks, parts of antique furniture, jewelry and the spectacular “Antikythera mechanism” – a strange gear wheel-fitted bronze object that is believed to have been an ancient astronomical calculator and most likely, the world’s oldest computer! Talking about this mysterious device, Cardiff University professor Mike Edmunds said:
It is more complex than any other known device for the next 1,000 years.
The area of the wreck is located at a depth of around 180 feet(55 meters) below the sea surface, which meant that exploring the site was tricky and indeed very dangerous. The excavation work was completely stopped after the death of one of the divers. It was only in 2012 that the US-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute(WHOI) acquired permission from the Greek Government to conduct fresh searches at the island’s wreck site. The result is the Return to Antikythera mission, whose objectives include scouring the entire area using modern technologies and also confirming the presence of another ancient ship, about 820 feet(250 meters) away from the main site.
During the first round, taking place between Sept. 15 and Oct. 7, 2014, an accomplished team of marine archaeologists, led by Brendan P. Foley, successfully conducted an extensive survey of the seafloor by means of 3-D mapping, with advanced autonomous underwater vehicle(AUV)-mounted cameras. The data collected have confirmed that the remnants are actually scattered across a much larger area, of up to 984 feet(300 meters).
Among the rescued artifacts are the ship’s anchors and hull planks, whose gigantic sizes prove that the Antikythera vessel was actually much larger than was previously believed and could as well have been up to 164 feet(around 50 meters) long. Foley was recorded saying:
The evidence shows this is the largest ancient shipwreck ever discovered…It’s the Titanic of the ancient world.
Ordinary diving suits aren’t of much use at such great depths. Consequently, the high-tech Exosuit, designed by Canada-based Nuytco Recearch, is being utilized for this challenging underwater mission. Acting like a wearable submarine, this Iron Man-esque suit allows divers to safely reach a depth of about 492 feet(150 meters), a major leap from the maximum depth of 196 feet(60 meters) that divers could previously attain.
Marine archaeologist Ed O’Brien became the first person ever to wear this futuristic Exosuit. Made from aluminium, this $588,000 bodysuit carries enough oxygen to last up to 50 hours. The WHOI website stated:
We will have more bottom time than any previous human visitors to the site, because we dive with mixed gas rebreathers…Each diver will have more than 30 minutes of bottom time per day, and will enjoy greater mental acuity and a larger safety margin than that of previous divers at Antikythera.
The remnants of the ship, together with a “bronze rigging ring” with wood fragments attached to it, indicate that much of the ship still survives and unfortunately remains unrecovered. The find includes a stunning table jug, an antique bed leg and most importantly, a 6.5 feet(2 meters) long bronze spear. Buried just below the seabed, this ornate spear is in fact too heavy and too large to have functioned as a real weapon. Instead, Foley believes that it most possibly adorned a huge ancient statue, perhaps of the Greek goddess Athena. Foley said:
We may find one or more monumental statues that were left behind in 1901, in the mistaken belief that they were rocks.
This underwater expedition has been one of the most promising works of its kind, with regards to ancient maritime history. Much of site, however, is still unexplored, which is why the team is gearing up to conduct another such mission next year. In this context, Theotokis Theodoulou of the Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities had to say:
We have a lot of work to do at this site to uncover its secrets.
To learn more about the Return to Antikythera expedition, watch the following video:
Image credits: Return to Antikythera website.