Bronze limbs, a sarcophagus lid, marble statue pieces, and a mysterious bronze disk were among the remains found during excavations of one of the world’s most ancient—and famous—shipwrecks.
Greece’s Division of Underwater Antiquities—a government agency that’s part of the country’s ministry of archaeology—announced their finds Wednesday after several weeks of excavations, which lasted from September 4 to 20. Located just off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera 180 feet below the sea, the so-called Antikythera shipwreck can yield insights into Roman culture during its heyday.
“[Marine archaeologists] have found a very big treasure of statues of marble and bronze and other items,” said expedition co-leader Aggeliki Simossi.
According to Simossi, the first century B.C. merchant ship would have been bound for Rome, where wealthy members of Roman society decorated their villas with Grecian art. Large for its time, the ship measured roughly 130 feet long, meaning a large stash of artifacts was on board when it set sail for Italy.
Video taken during the excavation shows the archaeologists pulling a realistic sculpture fragment of an arm from the elbow to the fingers. The open tilt of some of the statues’ hands, with fingers seeming to gesture up and outward, suggest they were modeled after philosophers.
While the statues would likely have been considered high art in their day, perhaps the most intriguing artifact found is a small, bronze disk. Punctuated with holes and decorated with the image of a bull, it’s unclear what the disk was used for, said Simossi.
“It is maybe decoration for furniture or maybe a seal, or it could be an instrument,” she said. “It is very early to say.”
It’s also reminiscent of the Antikythera mechanism, a small, bronze disk that measures celestial movements with impressive accuracy. That piece was found among the ship’s remains in 2006. The mechanism is so accurate, in fact, that it’s often referred to as an “ancient computer.”
The team of archaeologists, co-led by Simossi and archaeologist Brendan Foley from Lund University in Sweden, will continue studying the remains of this year’s haul, before returning to the shipwreck site in May of 2018 for more excavations.
While Simossi said this year’s field work yielded a bigger haul than previous years, the Antikythera shipwreck has been the archaeological gift that keeps on giving. It was first discovered in 1900 by sponge divers, who spotted limbs from bronze statues.
The “orphan” limbs, as they’re called by archaeologists, suggested early on that more treasure was waiting to be found. Famous French marine explorer Jacques Cousteau excavated the ruins in 1976, finding additional statues and some smaller artifacts.
While the site has been well known for over 100 years, excavations have been intermittent since Cousteau’s trip in the 1970s. Foley’s focus on the region in 2014 renewed archaeological interest. Perhaps one of the most significant finds came during September of last year, when archaeologists found human remains at the site. It was the first opportunity to examine 2,000-year-old DNA from the wreck, which may provide more clues about its history. The DNA is still being analyzed but initial work suggests it was likely a young male.
Discussing the find in 2016 with Nature, Foley speculated that the ship sank suddenly and from natural conditions—most likely a storm.
According to Simossi, the wreck contains the most cargo of any known ship remains in the Mediterranean. The slow, painstaking work of combing through the wreckage means more discoveries are possible there.