Editor’s Note: Veteran science journalist Philip Hilts is working with a team of archeologists, engineers and divers off the shore of Antikythera, a remote Greek island, where a treasure ship by the same name sank in 70 B.C. New, high-tech gear is allowing the team for the first time to examine and excavate a wreck with the care and thoroughness of an archeological dig. This article is the fourth installment in a series, the entirety of which can be found by clicking here; or follow these links to the first, second and third stories.
Antikythera, Greece—After three weeks of diving on an ancient shipwreck beside Antikythera Island, an international expedition has produced the results it sought: proof that the wreck from 70 B.C. still contains much precious buried treasure, and a mandate to carry on with its detailed archeological excavation.
Perhaps the most intriguing find was evidence that there are two wrecks on the site, not just one. The main wreck is from a ship that was very large for the time, up to 50 meters long—now spread out across the ocean bottom at the foot of an underwater cliff 165 feet deep. The possible second wreck is about 200 meters away.
The main shipwreck was first found by Greek sponge divers in 1900, and then visited again in 1976 by scuba divers with Jacques Cousteau. Those expeditions were not careful archeological digs, but salvage operations that yielded the greatest treasure ever found on an ancient wreck site. The cache included dozens of marble and bronze statues or parts of statues, as well as gem-encrusted gold jewelry and a bronze analog computer, called the Antikythera Mechanism, which tracked the movement of the sun, moon and planets.
In its first few days the team from Greece, the U.S. and Australia completely mapped the wreck site on the bottom with 3D cameras and scanned the wreck with metal detectors. The largest find of the subsequent, careful excavation was a seven-foot bronze spear that the divers believe was in the grip of a life-sized bronze warrior yet to be uncovered. Also found was a red terracotta jar still intact, about half a meter high, probably for serving wine.
A bronze ring used for tying up rigging on the ship was found with a piece of wood from the deck still attached. The team also found and retrieved an anchor from the bow of the ship.
Scattered across the wreck are parts of double-handled jars called amphorae. Earlier work showed that at least some of the jars contained herb-flavored wine, and a type of sweet Cretan wine.
Several other objects were found more than 200 meters away, including another anchor, a piece of lead piping that might have been from an ancient bilge pump, and stacks of amphorae arranged as if still in place in the hold 2,000 years ago.
The archeologists believe these objects may be from a separate ship, traveling with the first one. There are four types of jars on the first wreck, and their shapes and the stamps impressed upon them show they are from the first century B.C., from the ports of Rhodes, Kos, Pergamon and Ephesus. The second site has revealed the same four types of amphorae, from the same time and ports, which suggests the two ships stopped together and then perhaps sailed in tandem to their doom in a storm, smashing against the sheer rock walls on Antikythera.
This year’s expedition was mounted by the Greek government’s Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the U.S. Theotokis Theodolou, an archeologist and official of the Greek ministry, said, “It is not certain that these are two ships, but they may be. There is much more work to be done.”
Because of the main ship’s size and the richness of its cargo, underwater archeologist Brendan Foley of Woods Hole called the wreck “The Titanic of the ancient world.” The large number of parts of statues found in earlier expeditions leads the archeologists to believe that many statues and other objects may still be found under the sand and sediment.
The team hopes to return next year for a more detailed excavation of both sites, using dredge hoses that can suction off the sediment rapidly in large quantities. The team may even deploy the futuristic, underwater diving suit called the Exosuit, which was lowered to the site twice during this year’s expedition as practice for future work. A diver inside the suit can stay submerged for up to 50 hours at a time, as deep as 300 meters, allowing much more sustained time working on the bottom.
“This place still has many secrets,” Theodolou said. “And we want to come back, maybe again and again, to uncover them.”
With the season’s work ended, the expedition’s curator, Catherine Giangrande, will see that the objects are wrapped and kept first in salt water, then gradually switched to fresh water to leach out the salt. The objects will then be sent to the Ephorate’s laboratories in Athens, where they will be put under microscopes and in some cases x-rayed before technicians can safely remove the ocean accretions encrusting them.
From the humble accommodations on Antikythera (there is no hotel; everyone stayed either on boats or in spare rooms) the team will scatter: the Americans back to Woods Hole, or in my case Cambridge, Mass., the Australians back to Sydney; the Greek divers to Athens: mission leader Brendan Foley to his home in Sweden; and diver Phil Short to Grand Cayman to get married in a beach ceremony at the end of October.
ARGO, the nonprofit research group that ran the expedition, will continue to seek funds to carry on the work. The plan is to reassemble the team next September, the time of year when winds are supposed to be calmest in the Aegean Sea.
Images courtesy of ARGO.
Other posts in this series: