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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It’s a glimpse of how marine archaeology might look in the future. But while all eyes were on the Exosuit, the divers have made one more discovery—and it changes everything.

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Foley has given the go-ahead for one last dive. The instructions: Tidy up the site so it can’t be easily found. Remove the mooring line and the dyed yellow pebbles used to mark metal detector hits. There’s a fear that bounty hunters might scavenge the wreck before the team can return. The site’s depth has so far kept it safe, but with rebreather technology becoming more widely available, it is now within reach of looters.

Once that’s done, Short and Sotiriou swim to a second wreck site, located a few hundred feet to the south. First discovered by Cousteau, this is believed to be from a smaller ship, with a cargo of clay amphoras. It dates to the same time period as the main Antikythera wreck, so perhaps the two ships were traveling together, felled by the same storm. Foley wants some decent pictures of the site.

When the divers return, they’re buzzing. “Today’s dive was awesome,” says photographer Brett Seymour. “Our best so far.” After dinner back at the hotel, he projects the photos from his laptop onto the white porch wall. The sun sets over the harbor, and there’s a gorgeous full moon. 

As the divers swim from the scraped-clean landscape of the main wreck site toward the second wreck, there’s a scattering of amphoras and ceramic fragments on the seabed. Then three piles of white amphoras, still in neat stacks. “There are at least two tiers, maybe three,” comments Foley. “It doesn’t look like wreckage, just a section of the hull.”

Then everyone sees why Seymour and the other divers are excited. It’s a lead anchor collar, shaped like a rectangular bar with three characteristic square holes. Anchors from this period consisted of a wooden shaft and flukes weighed down with a lead stock (like a crossbar) and a collar that held the flukes to the base of the shaft. This collar is well over three feet across, hinting at an anchor maybe 16 feet long. Everyone whistles. “That’s huge!” says Foley. It brings the tally of anchors found across the two sites to five, several of them very large, with this one bigger than the team has ever seen—probably the largest ever discovered from ancient times.

A small cargo ship wouldn’t have used an anchor this big. Instead, the new evidence points to an idea some members of the team had pondered but hadn’t dared to believe: There aren’t two wrecks. Both sites appear to belong to one enormous ship that broke in half when it smashed against the cliffs. Scholars had guessed that the Antikythera ship might have been a fairly hefty 100 feet long, with a cargo of perhaps 300 tons. If both wreck sites are part of the same vessel, it could have been more than 150 feet.

This new interpretation helps make sense of some improbably large hull planks that Cousteau found here. At four inches thick, they rival those of 19th-century warships and are bigger than planks from the largest ships discovered from antiquity—including two 230-foot floating palaces sunk in Lake Nemi, Italy, built for the Roman emperor Caligula in the first century A.D. The one-ship theory would also explain why artifacts are scattered between the two sites, and why the spear was found south of the main wreck, toward the second site. Foley and his team had assumed that the ship pointed north with its galley in the south. “Maybe we have to swing our mental picture of the wreck around 180 degrees,” he says. More likely, the amphora piles represent the front part of the ship.

If the ship is as large as the hull planks and anchors suggest, Foley speculates, it might be a grain carrier, either repurposed to carry a luxury cargo or transporting treasures along with what was most likely primarily wheat. These grain carriers were the biggest seagoing vessels in antiquity. Not one has been found, but ancient writers described how these oversized freighters traveled from Alexandria to Rome. In the second century A.D., the Roman satirist Lucian described one such vessel, Isis, when it pulled in at Athens. Even larger was the Syracusia, reportedly built by Archimedes in the third century B.C. It carried grain, wool and pickled fish, and was equipped with flowerbeds, stables and a library. The cargo list of the maiden voyage, from Syracuse in Sicily to Alexandria, suggests it carried almost 2,000 tons. Finding one of these giants “has been one of the holy grails for archaeologists for generations,” Foley says. He can’t resist describing the Antikythera to journalists as “the Titanic of the ancient world.”

For now, though, Foley and his team are done. The sea is finally calm. They sit on the porch drinking local beers and watching Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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Foley plans to return to Antikythera as soon as this spring. He wants to map the entire region again, this time including the second wreck site and the spaces between. Before then, he hopes to work with his colleagues in Sydney to mount a metal detector and seabed-penetrating sonar onto the robotic sub, so the map will show for the first time some of what’s hidden beneath the surface. “The works of art are the thing that rivets attention,” he says. “Once the attention is there, then the funding is there, and we can continue.” But he’s hoping for something else. The dream would be to find ancient technology similar to the Antikythera mechanism, or other devices written about but never found, such as mechanical puppets featured on water clocks or in temples, or a mechanical vending machine that dispensed holy water. 

Foley’s thoughts quickly turn to all the other wonders waiting elsewhere on the seafloor. “I can’t believe this is the only ship from antiquity that sank carrying such remarkable things.” As many as 20,000 ships are estimated to have sunk in the Mediterranean and Black seas in ancient times. The ones known so far were mostly discovered by chance, in shallow, relatively accessible coastal areas. With private sponsorship and state-of-the-art technology, Foley hopes to survey large areas of the seafloor, looking for untouched wrecks in deeper water. 

“Let’s go and find not just the next wreck,” he says, his optimism fully restored, “but the next hundred.”     

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