In the annals of great discoveries, much is owed to sheer good luck. And few treasures illustrate that better than the “Titanic of the ancient world.” More than 2,000 years ago, a Roman vessel brimming with innumerable artifacts and devices, including what’s been described as world’s oldest computer, drowned in the crystalline waters off of the Greek island of Antikythera. For the next two millennia, the ship was forgotten and lost to the seas — until a sponge, of all things, revived its legend.
It was the spring of 1900 when a stern-faced captain named Dimitrios Kontos, who led a team of equally stern-looking sponge divers, dropped anchor off Antikythera’s coast to wait out a bad storm and troll the waters for sponge. But rather than re-emerge with sponge, a diver named Ilias Stadiatis came up with the arm of a bronze statue — and word there was plenty more where that came from.
Now, more than a century and numerous pivotal discoveries later, researchers continue to plumb the wreckage off Antikythera for more secrets of the past. For years, however, it was too deep in the ocean and beyond technology’s reach. That’s now changed. Whereas teams once wore heavy suits with heavy masks, today scientists use something called the “Exosuit” reminiscent of “Iron Man.” Built by a Canadian research company, explorers compare it to wearing a submarine that “expands our capabilities,” Greek archaeologist Theotokis Theodoulou told Agence France-Presse.
With it and other gizmos, scientists with the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports mapped the seafloor in the past three weeks, deployed the Exosuit for a day and came back with a slew of fresh finds. Among them: a bronze spear perhaps once nestled in the grip of a massive statue, pottery, and metal fittings used to hold the wooden ship together. The findings are fresh clues as to what else could be down there. Researchers said the spear, for instance, isn’t connected to any of the wreck’s sculptures.
“I don’t know what is there — perhaps more works of art or parts of the ship’s equipment, but we really have to dig,” Angeliki Simossi, director of Greece’s underwater antiquities department, told the Associated Press. He added: “It was a floating museum, carrying works from various periods; one bronze statue dates from 340 B.C., another from 240 B.C., while the Antikythera Mechanism was made later. This was when the trade in works of art started.”
Senior archaeologist Brendan Foley of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts added: “It’s the Titanic of the ancient world.” The ship was indeed considerably larger than first imagined. It’s “scattered over a much larger area than the sponge divers realized, covering 300 meters of the seafloor,” said one recent report in Phys.org. “This together with the huge size of the anchors and recovered hull planks proves that the Antikythera ship was much larger than previously thought, perhaps up to 50 meters long.”
But the Titanic didn’t have what this ship did. Researchers believe the vessel may have been carrying treasures from Roman-conquered Greece to Italy to fete Rome’s aristocracy when it sank, leaving behind a trove of relics that have mystified and amazed explorers since the days of the first discovery.
“Some of the [statues], it is not too much to say, may claim a prominent position in the history of Greek sculpture,” researchers wrote in the 1901 edition of the Journal of Hellenic Studies. ” … It gives us for the first time an adequate idea of what bronze statuary was in Greece and in the fourth century B.C. … Such are the statues which the sea had given back to us after entombing them in its depths for nearly two thousand years.”
It gave back more than statues. There was also a heavily corroded gear wheel that turned out to be an ancient clockwork device, the complexity of which surpassed anything of its day. It was something close to a calendar, displaying “celestial information, particularly cycles such as the phases of the moon and a luni-solar calendar,” researchers wrote in Nature in 2006. “The Antikythera Mechanism is technically more complex than any known device for at least a millennium afterwards.”
Using a complicated “pin-and-slot” mechanism to track the moon, it would come to be known as the world’s oldest computer. “When you see it your jaw drops and you think: ‘bloody hell, that’s clever,'” scientist Mike Edmunds told BBC. “It’s a brilliant technical design.”
While this most recent dive didn’t yield anything that matched the computer, Greek scientist Simossi said researchers will be back for more. Metal detectors picked up signs of additional ancient artifacts hidden in the remains. “We have to continue,” she told AP. “It can’t stay at this. “But it’s very difficult, the sea is open. … It’s as if the wreck doesn’t want to be uncovered.”
A great video about this exploration is here.