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Famed Antikythera wreck yields more treasures

Researchers find signs of untapped riches at 2,000-year-old site that housed mysterious clock-like object.

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  1. The Antikythera shipwreck is best known for an elaborate, geared contraption known as the Antikythera mechanism, which encoded positions of the planets, the moon and other celestial players and events — prompting scholars to call it the world's oldest computer.

    Aristidis Vafeiadakis/Corbis

  2. An intact "lagynos" ceramic table jug and a bronze rigging ring are among the treasures excavated from the ruins of the massive Antikythera ship, which was first discovered by sponge divers in 1900.

    Brett Seymour/Return to Antikythera

  3. This newly discovered bronze spear, too hefty to have been a weapon, is likely part of a statue carried on the ancient ship that crashed more than 2,000 years ago off the Greek island of Antikythera.

    Brett Seymour/Return to Antikythera

  4. The spear is roughly 2 metres long and weighs just over 10 kilograms.

    Brett Seymour/Return to Antikythera

  5. Researchers tested an Exosuit, a hard metal suit that allows them to dive to depths of roughly 300 metres, with support from the Hellenic Navy vessel THETIS.

    Brett Seymour/Return to Antikythera

Treasures found on an ancient Mediterranean shipwreck suggest that the massive vessel met a stormy, violent death, and scattered remains over a much larger area than previously thought.

An ornate bed leg, an intact jug and giant bronze spear are among the finds discovered by archaeologists in the famed Antikythera wreckage in the Aegean Sea. The 2,000-year-old site is best known for housing an intricate navigation contraption, the Antikythera mechanism.

The treasure hints at a much larger booty, says Brendan Foley, a maritime archaeologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and co-director of the research team. “It kind of boggles the mind, what could be down there,” he says.

The spear, which is 2.1 metres long, 6 centimetres in diameter, and weighs 10.3 kilograms, is too big and heavy to have been a weapon; researchers believe it was probably part of a statue. (The legs, arms and other pieces of six to eight bronze statues were excavated from the site in 1901, along with more than 30 marble statues, which are now housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.)

The team, with researchers from Woods Hole and the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in Athens, had just five days of good weather during their 23-day excavation season, which finished on 7 October. But that was enough to learn that the wreck covers about 300 metres of the sea floor and that the ship was probably a hulking 50 metres long, quite a bit longer than the 37 metres reported for ships of that era.

“This is a pretty ponderous size for a vessel,” says John Huth, a physicist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an expert in ancient navigation techniques. People hadn’t yet figured out how to make wing-shaped sails that enabled sailing into the wind, so turning such a ship of that size would have required a lot of work by oarsman, Huth says. A perilous end on stormy seas isn’t that surprising. “It would not have been very agile,” he says.

Journal name:
Nature
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nature.2014.16124

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