The Antikythera Wreck and Archaeological Oopses

I’ve posted before about the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient Greek clockwork device that could predict the positions of the moon, the sun, and the known planets. It was found in the first shipwreck ever to be explored by archaeologists, located on a thirty metre-deep shelf off the island of Antikythera in the Ionian Sea. For a long time the corroded lump of bronze was overlooked because of the other astonishing treasures found at the site, including large bronze and marble statues that have been displayed in Athens with much pride since their recovery in 1901.

As it was the first ever underwater archaeological expedition, pushing the limits of the diving technology of the time, things weren’t done in as scientific a manner as they would be today. The archaeologists themselves were not divers, so they never saw the artefacts in situ. Not only did they lose all of the contextual information associated with the objects, there were other unfortunate consequences:

Then the divers announced a further problem: part of the wreck, they said, was obscured by enormous boulders. After some discussion the archaeologists worked out that these must be rocks from the cliff above, dislodged at some time by an earthquake, and soon devised a strategy for shifting them.

The instructed the divers to dig tunnels underneath the boulders, then twine strong ropes around them several times, an arduous task that took more than 20 dives for each boulder. The other end of the rope was attached to the sturdy Mykale (brought out again from Athens for the task) which then steamed at full power towards the open sea. Once dislodged from the wreck, the boulders were to be released from the ropes, rolled down the slope and into the depths below.

But then the minister Staïs, who was visiting, had a startling thought. What if the ‘boulders’ were actually colossal statues, so overgrown and corroded that the [nitrogen narcosis-]befuddled divers, working in the dim light of the wreck site, had failed to recognize them? He ordered the next bolder to be brought to the surface—at considerable further risk to the ship. After some tense moments there was a cheering from the decks as it heaved into view through the clear water. It was a huge, muscular Hercules, complete with club and lionskin—eroded but still recognizable as similar in style to the world-famous Farnese Hercules, kept in the Naples Museum. Presumably, they preferred not to dwell on the statues that had already been rolled forever out of reach.

—Jo Marchant, Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer—and the Century-Long Search to Discover its Secrets

Oops. The statues were obviously seriously eroded—marble melts in seawater—but it is painful to think of what might have been lost. Though the shipwreck has been revisited since its original discovery, I haven’t found any sign of an attempt to retrieve those lost statues. For now, along with countless other ancient treasures, they remain the property of the sea.

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8 comments on “The Antikythera Wreck and Archaeological Oopses

  1. wil says:

    Ohh my, that's a fairly major “oops”.

  2. AndrewL says:

    D'oh!
    Good to see you back in the blogging world 🙂

  3. Sylvia says:

    Thanks, Andrew. 🙂 I've been sidetracked by numerous spring projects, but am making a concerted effort to take more time for reading. Sunny weather helps. 🙂

  4. Sylvia says:

    Thanks, Andrew. 🙂 I've been sidetracked by numerous spring projects, but am making a concerted effort to take more time for reading. Sunny weather helps. 🙂

  5. Carol A says:

    We actually had a lecture at our university about this only about 6 weeks ago by an expert on the subject. I was disappointed at the time as I couldn't attend – now I am doubly disappointed! It is a fascinating subject. We probably can't really blame these archeologists for their blunders, 20/20 hindsight is easy, getting it right when you are a “pioneer” isn't.

  6. Sylvia says:

    You're right, Carol, no one is to blame, it was just an unfortunate turn of events. The archaeologists were wise to stay on the ship: at the time diving was extremely dangerous—something like a 50% fatality rate overall.

  7. Stefanie says:

    That is a most unfortunate oops. Good thing the minister had the idea that they might not really be boulders!

  8. びっくり says:

    I was struck by how the device was not noticed because of the other impressive things around. It is quite amusing that the thing of unknown use will be overlooked until it is understood, but the understanding takes attention and effort. I wonder how many other devices are discovered, yet still unknown…

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