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A Luxury-Laden Shipwreck from 65 B.C. WHOI scientist Brendan Foley finds a child’s gold ring, one of many luxury artifacts recovered from the seafloor. (Brett Seymour/EUA/ARGO/WHOI)

A Luxury-Laden Shipwreck from 65 B.C.

Marine archaeologists return to Titanic of ancient world

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Scientists returned in 2015 and 2016 to the wreck of a 180-foot ship that sank off the Greek island of Antikythera around 65 B.C., and recovered luxury items that included a bronze leg of a couch, remains of a bone flute, fine glassware, ceramics, jewelry, and part of an ancient board game.

“It was an enormous ship, carrying the highest-quality material available in the first century B.C.,” said Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution marine archaeologist Brendan Foley, who is co-director of the international research team. “Every single dive on it delivers fabulous finds and reveals how the ‘one percent’ lived in the time of Caesar.”

The shipwreck, first found in 1900 by sponge fishermen, has previously yielded sculptures and other luxury items, including the Antikythera Mechanism, a unique mechanical device—often described as the first computer—that encoded the movements of planets.

Foley collaborated with scientists of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports in Greece and the Australian Centre for Field Robotics of the University of Sydney. They created a high-resolution three-dimensional map of the site using stereo cameras mounted on autonomous underwater vehicles. In 2015, based on that map, divers used advanced technical diving equipment (including closed-circuit rebreathers with trimix breathing gases) to conduct the first systematic excavation of the wreck. Metal detectors revealed targets dispersed over about a half-acre.

“It’s like a tractor-trailer truck wrecked on the way to Christie’s auction house for fine art—it’s just amazing,” Foley said.

The scientists recovered more mundane items too, such as lead anchor stocks, fragments of lead hull sheathing, and ceramic jars. The lead will be analyzed to try to locate where it was mined and possibly reveal the ship’s home port. DNA recovered in the ceramic jars will help identify the food, drinks, perfumes, and medicines they may have contained 2,000 years ago.

In 2016, they found a heavy lead torpedo-shaped cylinder called a “dolphin,” which was dropped to punch holes in enemy ships, as well as a wreck of another ancient cargo ship nearby.

The remnants of these goods produced and traded by ancient civilizations represent scientific sunken treasure—rare and valuable puzzle pieces, strewn and preserved on the seafloor, that scientists can use to put together a picture of the agriculture, technologies, economies, art, and geopolitics of long-lost eras. 

Expedition supporters include Hublot S.A., the Swordspoint Foundation (USA), the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, Jane and James Orr, private sponsors of WHOI, Costa Navarino, the municipality of Kythera and the community of Antikythera, OTE-Cosmote, and Autodesk.