Exploring the Titanic of the Ancient World

Scientists search the wine-dark sea for the remains of a ship that sank 2,000 years ago—carrying what is believed to be the world’s first computer

History’s most impressive hoard of ancient Greek artifacts includes numerous amphoras, terra-cotta lamps, glass vessels, coins, jewelry and statues. (Brett Seymour / WHOI )
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Foley is packing for Kythera. It’s Wednesday, October 1, and he plans to fly there today, to ensure he makes this weekend’s event before the storms return and travel is impossible. He is resigned to giving a lackluster presentation. He can show off a photomosaic map of the wreck site, created during the project’s first week using Sirius, a robotic submarine operated by researchers from the University of Sydney. The resolution is an impressive four millimeters per pixel, and the photos were taken using a pair of stereoscopic cameras to give the appearance of depth. The map is a solid scientific achievement, and for Foley, a crucial prerequisite to excavating any part of the wreck. But it may not be enough to convince his private sponsors to keep pumping in cash. 

Foley needs a spectacular find. So far his team has recovered only an oversized bronze washer, probably from the leg of a bed or couch, and a flashbulb dropped by one of Cousteau’s divers in 1976. 

Alexandros Sotiriou and Phil Short, the team’s chief divers, eye the waves. Sotiriou, from Athens, practically grew up in his father’s diving center. He has led expeditions to wrecks such as the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic. Short, a straight-talking Brit and one of the world’s most renowned extreme divers, spent 45 days underground in 2013 exploring a huge flooded cave complex in Mexico. Caving offers one of the last chances on the planet, he says, to go “where no human being has ever been, where no light has ever shone.” 

Both understand the pressure on Foley. With hours to go before the trip to Kythera, the pair decides the winds have calmed just enough for a last-minute dive. Leaving Foley pacing on the dock, they jump aboard a little dive boat, accompanied by two U.S. photographers, and disappear around the headland.

The wreck is on a narrow, sloping shelf that runs north to south, parallel to the island, before dropping off into much deeper water. At first, as Sotiriou and Short descend, only rough boulders dotted with anemones and sponges are visible. As their eyes adjust, they pick out shards of broken pottery. Cousteau’s gear allowed his divers, breathing compressed air, to spend just ten minutes here each dive, but the 2014 team is using a mix of gases in which much of the nitrogen is replaced with helium, as well as a computerized “rebreather” system that scrubs carbon dioxide from the air they exhale, tops up the oxygen and recirculates it. The technology allows a safe hour on the bottom, though it takes more time to safely resurface.

Short heads off to recover a large lead anchor stock that the team located on a reconnaissance dive last year. Sotiriou, metal detector in hand, starts near the galley previously dredged by Cousteau and moves south, presumably away from the bow, to the very edge of the wreck site. It’s a risky strategy, but almost immediately he finds a nearly intact wine jug, its graceful terra-cotta curves buried upside down in the sand. Close by is a chunky bronze ring—part of the boat itself, used for rigging or mooring—and a piece of lead sheeting from the ship’s hull. Isotope analysis of a scrap like this could reveal more clues to the ship’s origin.

As a young boy, Sotiriou was captivated by a library book that told the story of the sponge divers from Symi. Now he imagines himself walking along the 2,000-year-old deck, visualizing the ship’s galley, its towering mast, its swan-necked stern. Where, he wonders, is the cargo hold? A few feet farther south comes his answer, a high-pitched whine from the detector signaling the strongest hit yet. Sotiriou fans the water, raising a cloud of sand, and sees the end of what looks like a sturdy bronze rod. He keeps fanning, working his way along the shaft, and is stunned when, after about six feet, it ends in a glorious point. He has found an ancient spear. 

He grunts to the others through his mouthpiece and lifts the weapon for a better look, planting its blunt end in the sand like a Roman guard. That’s it, he thinks. We did what we came here to do. They spend two hours decompressing, making a series of stops at predetermined depths on the way to the surface. With each stop longer than the last, they pass the time by posing for photos with their newly acquired prize. Once up, they whisk the spear back to Foley, for whom just one word is enough: “Exquisite.” Less than two hours later, they are all on the helicopter to Kythera, the spear wrapped in burlap and squeezed between the seats.

***

It is Saturday, October 4, and there’s a buzz of excitement as tourists, schoolchildren and camera crews gather around the picture-perfect harbor of Kapsali on Kythera’s southern tip. All attention is focused on the luxury yacht Glaros, its gleaming white lines a striking demonstration that there is at least some money left in Greece.

This sleek 130-foot vessel has been donated for the duration of Foley’s mission by the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, run by a Greek shipping magnate named Panos Laskaridis, a white-haired 70-year-old who wears a Daffy Duck T-shirt and spends the evenings spearfishing, returning late at night with bucketfuls of silver catch that spill across the deck. (“Brendan told me that there is very good fishing at Antikythera,” he says.) Glaros served as mission headquarters at the island as well as a launch platform for the Sirius sub, until storms forced it to the mainland. This morning the yacht has re-emerged in Kythera to host a private showing of the team’s results in its chandeliered dining room with a select group of Antikythera VIPs: politicians, sponsors and scientists.

“Poseidon has not been nice to us,” begins Foley, dressed in a linen jacket and trousers. “He gives his secrets grudgingly.” 

What follows is more movie trailer than academic presentation. Foley plays a slickly edited video of the work, featuring underwater shots, as well as topside footage by Michael Tsimperopoulos, a cameraman more used to shooting Hollywood blockbusters. Sponsor names appear in every scene; boats and gas tanks feature prominent bumper stickers, while the divers contort their arms to show off $30,000 Hublot watches. Unusual for such a high-profile project, no TV company is following the work. Foley says he turned down a hefty sum from National Geographic because he didn’t want to sacrifice control over how and when his results were presented. But he has dedicated tens of thousands of dollars to producing dramatic footage that grabs people’s attention. 

Foley shows off his photomosaic map, noting that placing each recovered object on the map will aid in understanding the wreck’s overall structure. “We can bring the shipwreck up into the air where everyone can look at it.”

Then he runs through images of the artifacts found so far, ending on his pièce de résistance, the spear, perhaps the first ever found from an ancient bronze statue. It must have belonged to a statue, Foley explains, because a solid bronze weapon would have been too heavy for a person (real spears had wooden shafts). It might come from a statue of the goddess Athena, he speculates, or a warrior. The surviving point would have been planted into the ground to brace against charging cavalry or to finish off wounded opponents. Striking to behold on its own, the spear proves there are treasures still to be found, and pinpoints the location of the cargo hold, where those treasures are likely to be.

The group applauds warmly; Foley is hopeful he has done enough to come back. But there’s still a million-dollar shadow over the day. Above him on Glaros’ top deck, the Exosuit—brought on for press photographs—glints in the sun. Today’s event was meant to celebrate the suit’s first successful mission. But it hasn’t even dipped a toe in the sea.

***

Thetis is circling. It’s a clunking gray ship built in the 1960s, and on its front deck, in a large steel cradle, the Exosuit stands at attention like a visitor from outer space. 

On Sunday, the day after the sponsor presentation, Thetis and the Exosuit finally reached Antikythera. But the ship anchored too far from the wreck site (it is not equipped with GPS, so the crew relies on less accurate paper charts), and there wasn’t time to move before night fell. On Monday, the wind was too strong to risk deploying the suit. Now it’s Tuesday, October 7, the last chance of the mission. After today, the storms are forecast to return and the team will head home.

On the seventh attempt, Thetis finally gets its hooks into the seabed. But it’s still too far away for the Exosuit to reach the wreck. “If seven hasn’t done it, eight isn’t going to,” advises Theodoulou. With so little time left, Foley gives up on doing any archaeology today; Thetis will stay where it is. The aim now is simply to get the Exosuit into the water.

With a red-and-silver shell, domed helmet and pincers for hands, the suit looks straight out of a movie, but it’s for real, the first in a new generation of atmospheric diving suits. The air inside is kept at atmospheric pressure, so there’s no problem with the bends. The pilot can descend to 1,200 feet for hours at a time, and move around thanks to foot-controlled thrusters and 18 rotating joints. Power is fed through an umbilical connected to the boat above. 

The Exosuit is more powerful and more maneuverable than any previous model, with more dexterous tools and better visibility for the pilot. It was designed by an entrepreneur named Phil Nuytten, of Nuytco in Vancouver, and is operated by an engineering company in Massachusetts, J. F. White, which hopes it can revolutionize underwater endeavors from archaeology to construction, such as the installation of pipelines. 

The suit should have had its first outing in open sea last summer, in a Yale project to collect and image bioluminescent animals. But the camera equipment wasn’t ready in time, so the perilous cliffs of Antikythera became the Exosuit’s first working job.

With Thetis safely anchored, Woods Hole diver Ed O’Brien squeezes into the bottom half of the suit and folds his arms across his chest as the top clamps shut over his head. The quarter-ton suit sways slightly as he is winched high above the deck. This is the most dangerous part of the dive, O’Brien tells me later. If the suit fell at this point, he says, his pelvis could’ve snapped.

But the aluminum alloy ensemble swings over the side without mishap and at 10:45 a.m. slides into the water. O’Brien sinks to 150 feet—“but it could be 800 feet,” he says, “it feels the same”—and stays there for an hour, checking the suit’s thrusters and trying out his pincer hands. The best photographs of the mission come from these moments: breathtaking shots of man conquering the blue abyss.

The Exosuit was never meant to rule the operation “like Superman coming in,” says O’Brien. We’re sitting in Thetis’ cramped officers’ room after his dive. Everyone knew going in that any archaeological discoveries would most likely be made by the divers with their rebreathers. Instead, he says, diving in the suit is about laying groundwork for the future. “We’ve proven our point that we can use this for archaeology,” he says. “We’ve dived very close to a very tough area to get into.” 

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