In his first big assignment since retiring as director of Knight Science Journalism at MIT, veteran science journalist Phil Hilts recently accompanied teams from the Greek government and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to one of the world’s most famous marine archaeological sites: the wreck of the Roman treasure ship Antikythera.
The site has been visited many times before, notably by sponge divers in 1900 and by Jaques Cousteau’s team in 1976. It has yielded amazing treasures like a life-size bronze of Herakles (or perhaps Paris) and the intriguing Antikythera Mechanism, an analog computer designed to predict solar eclipses and other astronomical events. But because of the wreck’s depth – 135 to 185 feet – divers have never been able to spend much time on the bottom. It’s estimated that as much as 80 percent of the ship remains unexplored, Hilts says.
With a suite of new technologies in hand, including robotic 3D mapping gear, computerized rebreathing devices, and a pressured “Exosuit” for human divers, WHOI and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports arrived at the wreck site off the remote island of the same name, Antikythera, and stayed through October 7. The goal: produce the first complete 3D visual map of the site, and begin the first detailed excavations of what WHOI underwater archaeologist Brendan Foley calls “the Titanic of the ancient world.”
Thanks to the rebreathers, Hilts says, divers had more than an hour of bottom time per dive, allowing them to explore the site with metal detectors and retrieve objects such as an anchor from the bow of the ship.
Once some bad weather cleared, the teams were also able to test the Exosuit, an 18-jointed contraption that keeps its inhabitant at sea-level pressure. On planned dives in 2015 and future years, according to Hilts, wearers of the Exosuit will be able to spend many hours on the bottom, using a suction hose to remove sand and silt from the wreck and, with luck, uncover more artifacts.
Hilts was one of just two writers with full access to the Return to Antikythera project. He filed several posts from the site for Scientific American Expeditions blog and plans to write longer stories for other publications.
Among the expedition’s most exciting finds, according to Hilts, was a giant bronze spear, believed to be part of a larger statue yet to be discovered; a perfectly intact red terracotta jar; and possible evidence of a second wreck site just 200 meters away from the main site. The same four types of amphorae, or wine jars, were found at both spots, leading to speculation that two ships stopped at the same port before sinking together in 70 B.C.
The theory is that “the two ships…sailed in tandem to their doom in a storm, smashing against the sheer rock walls on Antikythera,” Hilts writes.
For further reading, here are all of Hilts’s Scientific American Expeditions posts:
Return to the Antikythera Shipwreck: The Exosuit’s First Mission, October 8, 2014
Return to the Antikythera Shipwreck: Marine Archaeology Goes High-Tech, September 29, 2014