Massive head of Hercules taken from a historic shipwreck

An archaeologist evaluates the possible head of Hercules. (photo by Nikos Giannoulakis, courtesy of the Return to Antikythera Project)

On Monday, marine archaeologists and researchers at the site of the famous Antikythera shipwreck announced the discovery of a number of ancient artifacts recovered from the seabed. These included a colossal marble head of a statue, a marble plinth for a statue along with the remaining parts of its lower legs, nails, a lead necklace for an anchor, and two human teeth. The discoveries reveal that there are still many archaeological treasures to be discovered off the coast of Greece – and at dozens of other underwater sites across the Mediterranean.

Particularly noteworthy among the artifacts is the massive marble head, not the bust of any mythological hero, but probably that of the headless statue of Hercules housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athensalso in Paros marble.

The Farnese-type headless Hercules kept at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (via Wikimedia Commons)

The new excavations are part of a multi-year project (2021-2025) carried out by the Swiss School of Archeology in Greece, the Ephoria of Antiquities of Euboea and the Ephoria of Underwater Antiquities under the direction of Angeliki Simosi and Lorenz Baumer. The Antikythera wreck site is off the eponymous island, which lies between the Peloponnese of mainland Greece and the island of Crete and in ancient times was often referred to as Aigila.

Dating from around 60 BCE (around the same time Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus created the First Triumvirate in Rome), the Antikythera is perhaps the most famous Mediterranean wreck known today. This is largely due to the discovery of a Hellenistic-era astronomical machine known as the Antikythera Mechanismoften referred to as the world’s first analog computer due to its use of many bronze gears to track the Sun, Moon, Zodiac, and many other astronomical and astrological features.

In 1900, a boat with divers and rowers en route to North Africa was delayed by bad weather near the island, and its passengers decided to search for sponges while waiting. Like the maritime archaeologist Alexandros Tourtas rebuilt, divers found what they believed to be corpses during an initial deep dive – but were actually the ship’s cargo of dozens of marble and bronze sculptures. The recently discovered colossal head of Hercules, which matches the sculpture in the National Archaeological Museum, is a “Farnese“, which usually shows the warrior hunched over or weary from his labors as he leans against an object with his club in one hand.

Partial remains of the Hellenistic-era Antikythera Mechanism discovered in 1901, often called the “first analog computer,” now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (via Flickr)

During initial explorations of the wreck around the turn of the century, and later during subsequent excavations by researchers such as Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the crew of the Calypso in 1976, hundreds more items were found. These go far beyond the Antikythera Mechanism and the headless Hercules: an intact bronze statue called the “Youth of Antikytherawas also recovered, along with the leader of a stoic philosopherbronze figurines, amphoras, ceramics and a number of coins. Many of these pieces came from cities in ancient Asia Minor (modern Turkey), such as Pergamon and Ephesus, suggesting that the ship was traveling from that region, possibly on its way to Rome or Italy to sell its sculpture and its cargo or to deliver orders already placed.

The recovered head of Hercules after being pulled from the seabed to be measured and examined (photo by Nikos Giannoulakis, courtesy of the Return to Antikythera Project)

The wreck is not only important for art historians or for the reconstruction of ancient trade routes, but also for our understanding of the travelers, merchants and seafarers of the ancient Mediterranean. Bioarchaeological remains – that is, materials from animals and humans – are a fundamental part of the ancient story told by the wreck. During their dives in the 1970s, Cousteau’s team discovered the bones of at least four individuals, including a young man, a woman and two others.

In 2016, archaeologists from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) announced the discovery of an additional human skull, teeth, long bones and other types of human remains found at the site. The two new teeth discovered during this 2022 dig season add another important piece of evidence, which could provide a window into “the person’s gender, hair and eye color, and ancestral origin,” according to the report. bioarchaeologist and former DNA expert Kristina Killgrove noticed in 2016. “And if the collagen and DNA were of particularly high quality, we might even be able to get a complete genome,” she said of the previous findings.

Modern exploration of the Antikythera wreck has greatly benefited from a number of technological tools such as underwater photogrammetry and 3D mapping, which have made underwater archeology more exciting than ever. And the Antikythera wreck is just one of many ongoing professional underwater excavations – around 600 new wrecks have been discovered since 1992 alone. Ancient economics experts such as Julia Strauss and Andrew Wilson at the Oxford Roman Economy Project published a database of ancient Mediterranean shipwrecks known up to 1500 CE, with almost 1,800 entries that include these new discoveries. The discoveries continue to amaze, as trained and licensed archaeologists and researchers work hand in hand with the Greek government to recover cultural heritage from the depths of the sea.


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