Posted on behalf of Jo Marchant
The sea has great destructive power, but it can also preserve. A new exhibition of 2,000-year-old artefacts retrieved in 1900 from a shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera includes some breathtakingly pristine treasures — such as a bowl made of delicate coils of turquoise, yellow and purple glass, and a miniature golden figure of Eros hanging from an earring set with garnets, an emerald and 20 tiny pearls.
The ancient ship is famous for having contained a geared astronomical device from the first century BC, dubbed the Antikythera mechanism. What’s less well known, however, is that the rest of its cargo is hugely important too: a dizzying collection of items from statues to ships’ nails that provide a unique insight into first-century-BC seafaring and trade.
The exhibition, called “The Sunken Treasure: The Antikythera Shipwreck”, includes hundreds of items on loan from Athens’ National Archaeological Museum – the first time they have been permitted to leave Greece – and runs at the Basel Museum of Ancient Art and Ludwig Collection in Switzerland until 27 March 2016.
The journey down
Curator Esaù Dozio and Paris-based exhibition designers Studio Adeline Rispal clearly want to take visitors on a journey. To enter the exhibition, we descend into a black-walled room with elegantly placed bronze and marble statues set against the ocean displayed on a 16-metre-wide screen. According to the notes, we’re in a Roman seaside villa. Around 70 BC, when the Antikythera ship sailed, wealthy Romans loved to decorate their homes with Greek artworks, and commissioned thousands of ships to deliver them from territories in the eastern Mediterranean.
Then we take a voyage, filing past a model of a Roman cargo vessel, and ship components retrieved from the Antikythera wreck itself, including a bilge pipe, hull planking, bronze nails and rigging rings. Next come cooking pots and oil lamps used on board, and what may have been the belongings of an aristocratic passenger – gold jewellery, and silver coins from Pergamum and Ephesus on the Asia Minor coast. Found near female skeletal remains, these items have sparked stories of a royal bride travelling to Rome with her dowry.
We descend a ramp to the sound of whistling wind and emerge on the seabed, another black room with marble statues from the shipwreck artistically arranged on piles of white-painted pebbles. The effect is beautiful yet ghostly. The torso of a horse – one of four that may have formed a chariot group – lies stranded on the stones. Crouching nearby is a naked boy. His head and half of his body (presumably protected over the millennia by being buried in sand) are exquisitely preserved, while his other arm and leg are rough, pitted stumps eaten away by the sea.
These marbles date from the first century BC, made of stone from the Aegean island of Paros. Meanwhile bronze statues, held in glass cases against the walls, are thought to date from the second and third centuries BC, already antiques when loaded onto the ship. These are mostly in pieces, including the arm of a boxer with a bandage-wrapped hand, and a philosopher’s head with piercing glass eyes and tousled hair. The missing parts are presumably still buried below the seabed.
Other items provide a snapshot of thriving Mediterranean trade: there’s glassware from Alexandria; fragments of a wood-and-bronze couch, probably from the island of Delos; and wine jars from Kos and Rhodes. A small room dedicated to the Antikythera mechanism doesn’t contain the surviving fragments (these are too fragile to leave Athens) but does feature several models – of the mechanism itself and other ancient geared devices, including the “sphere of Archimedes” described by the Roman writer Cicero.
The exhibition also nods to the changing technology used to explore the wreck. On the “seabed”, we see a canvas diving suit like the one used by sponge divers to salvage the 55-metre-deep site in 1900; a model of the boat used by marine researcher Jacques Cousteau when he investigated the wreck in 1976; and a giant photograph of the Exosuit, a US$1-million wearable submarine deployed at Antikythera in 2014.
That latest project, directed by Brendan Foley of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts with archaeologists from the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, aims to discover whether any of the ship’s cargo remains buried on the seabed. In September 2015, divers retrieved items including a blue game pawn, sections of a bone flute and pieces of mosaic glass. They hope future excavations might yield more statues, or even another mechanism, to add to the items on display.
But the Antikythera collection is opening up in another way too. As well as excavating the wreck site, Foley says he is determined to carry out as many scientific tests as possible, not just on new discoveries but on the existing artefacts. For example, lead isotope analysis on the ship’s hull sheeting should show where it was built, while DNA analysis on the contents of ceramic jugs and jars may reveal the contents of the foodstuffs, medicines and perfumes they held.
Other possibilities include fracture analysis on the bronze statue pieces to investigate how and when they broke, and X-ray imaging. A prime candidate for X-ray analysis is a bronze statuette discovered by Cousteau’s team in 1976. It stands on a circular base with what looks like a broken-off key on the front. According to the exhibition notes, a mechanical device inside the base rotated the statue when this key was turned. Yet this idea has never been investigated or confirmed. The statue dates from the second century BC, so if X-ray imaging does reveal an internal mechanism, this statuette would trump the Antikythera mechanism as the world’s oldest known geared device.
The Basel exhibition is truly stunning, but for me, the most exciting thing about this collection is the paradigm shift now being driven by Foley and his team. Since 1900, these objects have been beautiful but static, seen merely as artworks to be admired and conserved. The introduction of a scientific approach promises to transform them into a dynamic, rich source of new information about this fascinating period of ancient history.
Jo Marchant is author of a book about the Antikythera mechanism called Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World’s Computer. Her next book, Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body, will be published by Canongate in February 2016.