The Antikythera shipwreck and the mechanism

The Antikythera shipwreck

In April 2012, the National Archaeological Museum of Athens presented a temporary exhibition of the spectacular findings from the famous Antikythera shipwreck; the boat sank in the 1st century BC near the small island between the islands of Kythera and Crete.

Among the archaeological treasures which came to light are the Antikythera Youth, one of the finest ancient statues, and the famous Antikythera Mechanism, one of the wonders of ancient Greek technology, which is still studied by scientists. But, the discovery of the shipwreck and the research that followed is, in itself, a charming story.

The shipwreck

The shipwreck was found in the spring of 1900 by sponge divers from the island of Symi in the Dodecanese. It was a freighter sailing to Italy full of treasures. It is estimated that it had a capacity of 300 tons and sank in 75 to 50 BC. Its cargo dates from the 4th to the 1st century BC. Apart from the archaeological and aesthetic value, the findings provide valuable information on art and artifacts trade during the 1st century BC when the Romans finally prevailed in the Hellenistic East. At the time, maritime trade and transport of works of art from the Eastern Mediterranean to Italy reached at a high point. And the new phenomenon of art trafficking emerged, the first in the history of Western Civilization.

The findings also show how the Greek way of life influenced the wealthy Roman aristocrats who adorned their villas with Greek works of art demonstrating wealth and social status.

It is considered probable that the ship departed from Delos, which was the duty-free paradise of the times. The Romans had declared the island a free port for trade from 166 BC. This status lasted until 69 BC, when it was destroyed by pirates. The main production countries for most of the cargo items were northern Syria and Alexandria.

Discovery and research

Easter 1900 a sponge fishing boat from Symi anchored near the northeastern coast of Antikythera just a short distance from Cape Glyphadia. The first diver who went down to the seabed about 50 – 60 meters saw a mass of statues, vases and parts of a ship; he grasped the right hand of a statue and returned. The discovery was confirmed by the ship’s captain who dived into the water next. The sponge fishermen noted the location, returned to their island and after six months informed the Greek Government. They asked that they, themselves conduct the research and get paid for this job. The sponge divers were the only visitors to the seabed at the time and for many years afterwards.

The initiative was unprecedented for the time and the equipment which existed. The research and retrieval lasted from November 1900 until September 1901. The Navy assisted the twenty-two divers from Symi. Each diver could stay underwater only five minutes and dived only once a day. And, the weather was often bad. On December 27 1900 the statue of the Antikythera Youth was discovered in five large and many small pieces.

This difficult and extremely risky quest, which soon brought to light the Antikythera Mechanism, inaugurated Greek Underwater Archaeology and established a field of study on an international level. The main reason the initial research came to a halt was that they could not move large rocks on the seabed, work done with the help of Navy ships. However, the next research mission proved that most of the rocks were huge statues.

The second archaeological research took place in 1976 and undertaken by the Greek Archaeological Service, using the oceanographic vessel Calypso owned by the famous French marine researcher Jacques-Yves Cousteau But the greater part of the sunken ship and -- who knows how many and what kinds of items -- still remain at a depth of 50 meters, perhaps even deeper.

The temporary exhibition of the National Archaeological Museum dedicated to the Antikythera Shipwreck provided a unique experience. It was not only a journey into the past; the passage from one room to another under the proper lighting was a fascinating dive into the depths of Antikythera.
Almost all the findings were presented in their context for the first time; three hundred and seventy eight ancient works of art and coins! They come from the collections of the National Archeological Museum and the Numismatic Museum; parts of the ship come from the Ephorate for Underwater Archeology.
The 82 fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism, the world’s first computer, were accompanied by explicative texts and audiovisual material prepared for the exhibition by the National Hellenic Research Foundation. Official correspondence and photographs demonstrated the story of the discovery and recovery of the shipwreck.

The Youth and the other statues

The Antikythera Youth is one of the most famous and beautiful ancient statues. It was recovered from the seabed in five large pieces and many fragments and restored through a long and arduous effort.

There were different views of the model of the statue. It has been identified as Apollo, as Literate Hermes, as Hercules, as a victorious athlete holding its prize and as a funeral statue. There are two dominant views. According the one, the figure has been identified as the hero Perseus, displaying in his right hand the head of the Gorgon Medusa, which he had cut. According to the other, it was the Trojan hero Paris, holding the Apple of Discord to offer it to Venus. The majority of scholars consider that the statue is the work of a sculptor of the Argive-Sicuonian School, probably Kleon the Sicuonian. It dates 34 – 330 BC.

Another important bronze statue is the Antikythera Philosopher. The head, hands, sandaled feet and two fragments of the robe were recovered. The one hand is the first find brought to light, which was retrieved by the first diver in 1900. It is dated around 230 BC.

The marble statues represent gods, heroes and mortals in various positions. Most are oversized. There are three mutilated horse statues belonged to a quadriga chariot. The fourth horse was unlucky and returned to the seabed when the crane pulling it risked being overturned.

All marble statues are of white Parian marble, clear and bright, but only the parts that remained well buried in the sediment of the seabed. Most have been eroded so badly,that look like “demonic”. A special category of sculptures is called the Homeric Heroes; original artistic creations of the late Hellenistic period.

The other exhibits

A few pieces of gold jewelry and silver vases have been found in the shipwreck; also twenty very rare and beautiful glass vases, which remain in excellent condition. Another category of findings is the metallurgical objects; parts of bed-coaches, which had a wooden frame with bronze fittings, and vases, intact or in parts, made of bronze, tin or lead.

The coins were found in 1976; thirty-six silver coins and forty bronze coins. The bronze coins are from various Mediterranean regions; this indicates long haul voyages, as the small bronze coins were used for small-scale financial transactions. The silver coins dating from 104 to 67 BC are among the main factors dating the wreck.
The ship parts indicate the way of shipbuilding, as well as way of navigation at the time. Many other items have been found, such as transport amphorae, table ceramic, cooking pots, lamps for lighting aboard, olive kerns and lead tubular fishnet weights; they all show life on board during the voyage; game pieces show how sailors and travelers spent their time.

A total of eleven teeth and twenty-two bone specimens, representing human skeletons, have been also recovered. The Antikythera shipwreck is the oldest of the ancient shipwrecks in Greek seas where human skeletal remains have been retrieved. A twenty to twenty five year old male, a young adult female and a fifteen year old individual of unknown sex were identified.

The Antikythera Mechanism is the earliest preserved known portable astronomical calculator and modular mechanism in the world. It displayed the positions of the Sun, the Moon and probably the five planets known in antiquity. Except for astronomical observations, it was used to predict solar and lunar eclipses, displayed the date of Pan-Hellenic games and kept an accurate calendar for many years.

The Mechanism was created in the second half of the 2nd century BC; it is unknown where and who was the designer. The Mechanism is an application of the teachings of Hipparchus, father of astronomy, who visited the island of Rhodes in 146 to 128 BC and developed a theory to explain the irregularities of the moon’s motion across the sky because of its elliptic orbit.

The fragments of the Mechanism were recovered from the shipwreck in 1901. They were a compact mass of corroded copper covered by marine concretions. The mass remained unnoticed for eight months. On May 1902, when the pieces had already been separated under unknown circumstances, the numismatist I. Svoronos considered the fragments as a device consisting of several bronze gears resembling a modern clock.

Since then, many researchers have studied the Mechanism. Historians of science and technology continue to study it seeking answers to important questions that remain.
Seven large fragments and seventy-five pieces that are much smaller in dimensions ranging from 0.005 to 0.08 m are preserved. It is not certain whether or not all the smaller fragments belong to the instrument. Despite its condition, the Mechanism comprises gears, scales, axles and dials. It was placed inside a wooden case which protected it. The possible dimensions of the case are estimated at 0.33 X 0.18 X 0.10 m.

The Mechanism has thirty bronze gear-wheels with teeth, operated manually by a handle attached to one of its short sides; they enabled the Mechanism to make calculations based on two cycles of the Solar System known to the ancient Babylonians and Greeks; the Metonic cycle and the Saros cycle.
The instrument had front and back metal plates covered with densely incised inscriptions which contained astronomical information and instructions for use. The inscriptions on the interior surface referred to astronomical and daily calculations. An inscription indicates that the instrument was not used only by the designer, but also by other persons, such as astronomers or students. The inscriptions seem to have been carved by the same hand; which dates the Mechanism from 150 to 100 BC.

A small part of two concentric annuli with subdivisions is retained on the front side. The outer dial is an Egyptian calendar written in Greek characters. It contains 12 months of 30 days and five extra days, which add up to the 365 days of the solar year. The inner dial is the Zodiac cycle.
The upper back dial forms a five-turn spiral, which is a 19-year calendar based on the Metonic cycle. Twelve months of the Corinthian calendar are written on the Metonic disc. Inside the disc two smaller dials are distinguished; the Olympic dial, which is a four-year dial predicting the dates of the Pan-Hellenic games, and a dial, which is a 76-year cycle.
On the lower back dial a four-turn spiral is formed depicting the Saros cycle, an 18-year calendar, which predicts the solar and lunar eclipses. Inside the cycle is a smaller dial, the Exeligmos dial; it is a 54-year triple Saros dial.