The deep sea floor holds fabulous art from the ancient past

Deep submergence technology allows access to our distant cultural foundations

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This beautiful bronze statute of Zeus (or possibly Poseidon) was recovered from a shipwreck at Cape Artemision, Greece. It is a fine example of the Severe style of the early Classical period, 5th century B.C. (Brendan Foley)

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This life-sized bronze statue in Athens' National Archaeological Museum is known as "The Antikythera Youth". It was recovered in 1903 from the wreck at Antikythera. The figure may represent Paris holding the Apple of Strife, referring to a mythical event that ultimately led to the Trojan War. (B. Foley)

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The Horse and Jockey Boy composite bronze statue was trawled up in pieces in 1928 and 1936 at the northern tip of the island of Euboea, near Cape Artemision. The statue dates to the Hellenistic period The go-to academic reference for this work of art is Sean Hemingway, "The Horse and Jockey from Artemision" (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2004). (B. Foley)

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The head of another bronze statue was recovered from the Antikythera shipwreck, known as the Philosopher. Greek divers collected other components of the statue during the salvage of the wreck in 1903. This, too, is on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. (B. Foley)

Many fabulous works of art from the ancient world were recovered from sites underwater. Bronze statues, particularly, are more likely to survive underwater than on land. This is because bronze is a valuable material useful for many applications. Ancient bronze might originally have been cast into a statue, but later melted down and re-formed into swords or shields if an enemy theatened. Later still, that bronze could have been recycled to make church bells or cannons.

Some of the finest ancient works of art in bronze come from shipwrecks or other underwater sites. Several excellent examples are found in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece. The Antikythera shipwreck collection of bronze and marble art works is a specatcular display at that museum.

Some of the large marble statues from the Antikythera wreck are displayed in the museum's courtyard. Alongside the works of art is a a placard with the following text:

The Antikythera Shipwreck

An important group of sculptures in marble and bronze was discovered by chance by sponge-fishers from Symi at Easter 1900. It lay on the bottom of the sea off the east coast of Antikythera at a depth of about 50 meters.

During the underwater explorations, which lasted for ten months and was carried out under very adverse conditions, the same sponge-fishers retrieved 108 objects made of bronze and marble, the majority of which were statues and statuettes. They also recovered some pottery, most of it coarse-ware.

The marble pieces were badly corroded by the action of the sea water. However, figures of gods have been identified among them (Apollon, Zeus, Hermes and Aphrodite) and heroes (Herakles, Odysseus, Achilles or Diomedes), as well as torsos of athletes or dancers, and there are some impressive statues of horses.

The statues are copies or reworkings of originals dating from the Classical period, from the 4th century BC., and from the Hellenistic period, and some were probably part of groups or large-scale compositions. Most of the sculptures from the wreck date to the 1st c. BC.

Two bronzes from the shipwreck are on display in the National Museum: the statue of a nude boy, known as the ‘Antikythera Youth’ (inv. no.X 13396, Room 28), attributed to the sculptor Euphranor or his school and the head and parts of the body of a statue of a philosopher (inv. no. X 13400, Room 29).

One of the most important finds from the shipwreck is the complicated bronze mechanism known as the ‘Antikythera Mechanism’ which is probably an instrument to measure time and the seasons, based on the positions of the planets. This rare find is on display in the Bronze Collection (inv. no. X 15087, Room 38).

The port of departure of the ship that sank with its precious cargo off Antikythera in the 1st c. BC. remains unknown. It was probably Delos or, according to a different view, a port on the Asia Minor coast. Its destination, however, must have been Rome. During the troubled periods of history associated with the Roman conquest of the Hellenistic world, works of art, especially sculptures, were assembled in this city from all over the Greek world, either as spoils of war or as collector’s items.

What else lies on the deep sea floor, awaiting discovery?


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Last updated June 14, 2012
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