Ancient Skeleton discovered at the Antikythera Shipwreck

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The “Return to Antikythera” international research team discovered a human skeleton during its ongoing excavation of the famous Antikythera Shipwreck (circa 65 B.C.). The shipwreck, which holds the remains of a Greek trading or cargo ship, is located off the Greek island of Antikythera in the Aegean Sea. The first skeleton recovered from the wreck site during the era of DNA analysis, this find could provide insight into the lives of people who lived 2100 years ago.

Led by archaeologists and technical experts from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the team excavated and recovered a human skull including a jaw and teeth, long bones of the arms and legs, ribs, and other remains. Other portions of the skeleton are still embedded in the seafloor, awaiting excavation during the next phase of operations.

“Archaeologists study the human past through the objects our ancestors created,” said Brendan Foley, a marine archaeologist with WHOI. “With the Antikythera Shipwreck, we can now connect directly with this person who sailed and died aboard the Antikythera ship.”

The Antikythera Shipwreck is the largest ancient shipwreck ever discovered, possibly a massive grain carrier. It was discovered and salvaged in 1900 by Greek sponge divers. In addition to dozens of marble statues and thousands of antiquities, their efforts produced the Antikythera Mechanism —an astounding artifact known as the world’s first computer. In 1976, Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the CALYPSO crew returned to the wreck and recovered nearly 300 more objects, including skeletal remains of the passengers and crew.

The skeleton discovered on August 31, 2016, is the first to be recovered from an ancient shipwreck since the advent of DNA studies. Ancient DNA expert Dr. Hannes Schroeder of the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, hastened to Antikythera to view the remains. Once permission is obtained from the Greek authorities, samples will be sent to his laboratory for a full suite of analyses. If enough viable DNA is preserved in the bones, it may be possible to identify the ethnicity and geographic origin of the shipwreck victim.

“Against all odds, the bones survived over 2,000 years at the bottom of the sea and they appear to be in fairly good condition, which is incredible,” said Schroeder.

The Antikythera research team generates precise three-dimensional digital models of every artifact, allowing discoveries to be shared instantly and widely even if the objects remain on the sea floor. Several 3D models of the skeletal remains are available for researchers and the public to view on our devoted webpage.

Jonathan Knowles, Autodesk Explorer In Residence, said, “Our reality capture technology is not only helping share the amazing story of the Antikythera wreck with the world using digital models and 3D printed artifacts, it is enabling important preservation and furthering meaningful research.”

The project is supported by corporate partners Hublot (official diving watch and technical support), Autodesk, Cosmote (official telecommunication sponsor), Costa Navarino Resort (helicopter support) and private sponsors Swordspoint Foundation, Jane and James Orr, the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, the Domestic Property Committee of Kythera and Antikythera, the Municipality of Kythera, and private sponsors of WHOI.

The research team consists of archaeologists Dr. Theotokis Theodoulou and Dr. Dimitris Kourkoumelis (Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports); Research Specialist Dr. Brendan Foley (WHOI); archaeologist Alexander Tourtas; professional technical divers Edward O’Brien (WHOI), Philip Short, Alexandros Sotiriou, Nikolas Giannoulakis, and Gemma Smith; videographer Evan Kovacs; documentary director Michalis Tsimperopoulos; supported by Michalis Kelaidis, Dimitris Romio, and Dimitris Manoliades. The robotic mapping survey was conducted by Prof. Stefan Williams, Dr. Oscar Pizarro, and Christian Lees from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, University of Sydney. U.S. National Parks Service underwater photographer Brett Seymour and archaeologist Dr. David Conlin volunteer their time and expertise.

The Return to Antikythera project is supervised by the Director of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities Dr. Aggeliki Simosi and is under the aegis of the President of the Hellenic Republic Prokopios Pavlopoulos.

A Day in the Life

To provide more insight into what it’s actually like during an expedition, the following is an example of what happens on a typical day of fieldwork during the Return to Antikythera project…

6.30am – Wake up

7am – Breakfast

Diving is physically demanding, so food is important for energy
Diving is physically demanding, so food is important for energy
Pre-dive paperwork...
Pre-dive paperwork…

 

7.30am – Load equipment into the vehicles & trailer, then move to the dock

Load the vehicles & trailer
Load the vehicles & trailer

 

8am – Load the boats
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8.15am – Dive briefing
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8.45am – Arrive at the wreck site and gear up
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9am  – 10am – Dive teams descend, with the sequence and timing of descents depending on the days plan

Bottom time is generally around 40 - 60 minutes on rebreathers and 20-30 minutes using open circuit SCUBA
Bottom time is generally around 40 – 60 minutes on rebreathers and 20-30 minutes using open circuit SCUBA

 

10am -11.30am – Decompression

Decompression time is generally 45-70 minutes, depending on bottom time
Decompression time is generally 45-70 minutes, depending on bottom time

 
Noon – 1pm – Ascend, then return to the harbour
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1.15pm – 2.15pm – Unload the boats, take equipment up to the dive ops centre and wash
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2.15pm – Lunch

 

3pm – 5pm showers and unwind

 

5pm-6.30pm prepare equipment for the next day’s diving
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Post dive paperwork
Post dive paperwork

 

8pm – Dinner

 

10pm – Bed time

 

Then repeat the next day…

Best of the Old and New

Modern science is helping us better understand the past, with new technologies and techniques complimenting standard archaeological methods in piecing together what actually happened 2000+ years ago. Much like how modern forensics help police with investigations.

DNA testing, 3D reconstruction and isotopic analysis are three different techniques used by the Return to Antikythera Project, which we’ll talk about in more detail shortly.

Artefacts are often fragile, so where possible a 3D model is constructed both in situ underwater and after an object has been recovered from the shipwreck.

Here’s a 3D model of a hand from a marble statue found during the spring fieldwork season.

This is an example of an artefact that is badly eroded, making it difficult to say what the rest of the statue looked like, hence the development of an initiative called 3D Antiquity.

The idea is to 3D-model thousands of ancient sculptures accurately and precisely, then compare them against the eroded and unrecognizable Antikythera marble statues, in the hope of identifying them.

We’d like to thank software vendor Autodesk for assisting the project with their ReMake software for 3D reconstructions.

The latest in diving technology also allows the team to work safer and for longer periods of time, which is important in such a difficult location.

Here’s a number of images from over the last week.
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