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Lost treasures reclaimed from 2,000-year-old Antikythera shipwreck

  Chief diver Philip Short inspects the magnificent two-metre-long bronze spear reclaimed from the shipwreck, which archaeologists say was once part of a life-sized warrior statue
  WHOI diving safety officer Edward O'Brien "spacewalks" in the next-generation atmospheric "Exosuit"
  The Antikythera Mechanism confounded archaeologists who were unsure if it was an astrolabe or an ancient astronomical clock. Today, it is widely believed the mechanism was a complex computer tracking the astronomical calendar and lunar movements, with its manufacture dated to around 100 BC.
In the azure waters off the rocky coast of Antikythera, a remote island in the Mediterranean with a population of less than 50, an international team of archaeologists has recovered new treasures from one of the most mysterious shipwrecks of all time.

The group of maritime archaeology experts have been at the site since mid-September 2014. Armed with the most advanced marine technology available, they have conducted the first-ever scientific excavation of the Antikythera wreck. Reclaimed items include tableware, anchors and other maritime components, as well as a giant spear, which they believe once belonged to a life-sized bronze warrior statue.

World's first computer found at wreck

In 1900, sponge divers from the Greek island of Symi anchored along the eastern coastline of the island while waiting for a ferocious storm to pass. What they would stumble upon would stun the world.

Underneath the crystalline waters lay the incredible wreck undiscovered for thousands of years. As the site was explored over the next year, they would uncover life-size bronze statues and remarkable artefacts.

But it was the 1902 recovery of a clump of calcified stone with mysterious inscriptions that would push the wreck into archaeological lore. The heavily corroded bronze fragments would turn out to be what has been described as the world's earliest known "computer," designed in the first century BC – the Antikythera Mechanism. Built to track the astronomical calendar and lunar movements, later radiographic image analysis of the mechanism revealed 30 intricate gear wheels.

Famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau visited the site in 1976 to film a documentary and returned from below the surface with treasures galore. Since then, the site had remained dormant under the aegis of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture for almost 40 years.

Brendan Foley, an archaeologist from WHOI and co-director of the 2014 expedition remarked: "The Antikythera shipwreck is maybe the most important, most famous shipwreck from antiquity."

Shrouded in mystery

Analysis of the reclaimed artefacts has dated the vessel to the first century BC, while a horde of gold coins retrieved from the water suggests the boat's origins lie east, from Asia Minor.

Foley said: "This is not just an everyday trader. This is probably one of the largest, most expensive ships that were sailing in the first century BC. The 1901 sponge divers reported that the artefacts were spread among an area about 52 metres along the seafloor. And that corresponds with what we've observed in our dives on the site."

Supported by the Hellenic Navy, Foley and his team have been provided with research vessels capable of raising artefacts weighing up to five tons straight off the seabed.

"In the 1901 and 1976 operations, gemstones, gold stones and human remains were found, and human remains almost never come up from ancient shipwrecks," Foley remarked. " With modern DNA analysis, there are all kinds of questions that can be posed if we recover some."

The international expedition started by mapping out the site using an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics. The AUV conducted a high-resolution survey of the wreck site to create precise 3D documentation of the expansive debris field. Meanwhile, technical divers equipped with metal detectors scanned the seafloor to determine the extent of the wreckage under the sediment before test trench excavations were able to begin.

Underwater "Iron Man"

The team arrived in Greece with a next-generation diving suit that could revolutionise the future of ocean exploration. Looking like something straight out of "Iron Man", the Exosuit is an atmospheric diving system, created by Vancouver-based Nuytco Research, originally designed for offshore exploration of oil fields. Repurposed for the expedition, Foley explained it offers the team extensive bottom time at the site.

The best part is the simplicity of the technology, revealed its creator Phil Nuytten, a pioneer in deep-sea exploratory technology. "The suit is controlled by footpads that can tilt forward, backwards or from side to side." Aside from Exosuit's ease, Nuytten also highlighted how the suit negates some of the side effects of conventional saturation diving, like decompression sickness and prolonged, unnecessary dive times.

A doomed dowry?

When human remains – including a skull that was 80% intact – were recovered in '76, a treasure trove of jewellery, perfume bottles and other female-related trinkets were found close by.

"One of our pet theories is that maybe this ship was carrying a really wealthy woman from Asia Minor, and she was going to be married and this cargo was her dowry," said Foley.

With such a long passage of time between when the ship sank and the present day, and so many unanswered questions, the scientists and archaeologists expect to be working on the project for at least the next five years. And it's a journey Foley is excited to have embarked on.

"If we want to try to recreate the ancient past and figure out who we are, who we came from, why we live in this modern world, then the only way to do that is to look at the physical remains of past cultures."

"The Antikythera Mechanism is maybe the most important, certainly the most surprising, artefact recovered from an archaeological site anywhere," Foley noted. "Our question is: if this ship was carrying this kind of stuff, what else is down there? The Antikythera Mechanism had no precedence. Could there be other things of that sort of culture, and technological and scientific significance still down there?"

Source: CNN