THE Antikythera device: It’s an ancient computer which remains just beyond the grasp of science — and divers. Now they’re set to return to the wreck which has preserved the relic for centuries.
This week archaeologists are preparing once again to dive into the waters around the Greek island of Antikythera.
Below is one — possibly two — ancient wrecks from which an enormous treasure trove has already been recovered.
Rare bronze busts. Sculpted marble marvels. Coins and jewels.
A bronze celestial analogue computer.
Exquisite intricacy... Some of the fine detail of the Antikythira mechanism
A weather-wracked expedition was conducted at the site last year. A revolutionary robotic diving suit only managed a few dives when the waves calmed enough.
Since then the sea floor has been carefully mapped to specifically target fresh items of interest.
“We were shocked to discover the wreck was much larger than earlier work had indicated — 30 to 50 metres long,” expedition leader Brendan Foley told the Archaeology Hour Podcast.
“The hull timbers were 11cm thick. This would make the wreck bigger than the pleasure barges Caligula built for his artificial lake and they were the largest Roman era ships known.”
Coins found on the site date the disaster to between 70BC and 67BC.
While any and all new discoveries will present a valuable window in to life BC, there is one thing they want to find above all else.
More fragments of the Antikythera mechanism.
“In its original state the metal components of the mechanism were thin sections of copper alloy,” Foley told the podcast. “After thousands of years on the sea bottom they would now have the consistency of Fimo craft clay — very fragile indeed.”
Some speculate, based on differences in fragments found, that there may actually have been two computational devices in the wreck. Called astrolabes, they were used to predict the motion of the planets and the dates of upcoming eclipses.
Precious cargo ... A Roman-era grain ship, much larger than the example above, is believed to have been carrying loot from the Roman occupation of Greece when it sank off the island of Antikythera.
Foley said the current theory about the origin of the wreck was that it was a large grain carrier hastily converted to carrying loot from a recent Roman conquest — Greece.
General Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix marched into Greece in 87BC. A decade later, the wreck may have been used to haul his spoils of war back to Rome.
But Foley isn’t certain the ship was his: “We know some of Sulla’s ship’s sank north of Antikythera — but we do not think this is one of his ships at this time.“
He believes several bronze statues have yet to be recovered from the wreck. One bronze spear, for example, does not fit any statue so far found.
The cargo may have been the cause of the ship’s demise.
“The marble and bronze artworks would have been difficult to stabilise inside the hull and would have made it difficult to trim the vessel,” Foley said.
Divers will be operating for up to 90 minutes on the sea floor. This will be followed by up to an hour of decompression to prevent ‘the bends’, a condition where gas builds up in the blood stream.