The Secret of the Greek Galley

The Antikythera Shipwreck

In 1900, sponge divers discovered the wreck of an ancient Greek galley off the Aegean island of Antikythera more than fifty metres deep under the surface. As usual, the find threw up a load of questions: Where did the galley come from? Where was it going to? Why did it sink? Who were the passengers? And what is that mysterious, complex mechanism found in the wreck?


The site was excavated in 1976 with the help of the famous Jacques-Yves Cousteau – who had in the 1950s excavated the Grand Congloué shipwreck near Marseille – and more than 300 objects were recovered from the bottom of the sea.

The Antikythera Shipwreck exhibition in the National Archeological Museum in Athens. Photo by Elisa Triolo via Flickr.
The Antikythera Shipwreck exhibition in the National Archeological Museum in Athens. Photo by Elisa Triolo via Flickr.

The Greek galley, probably driven onto the rocks during a storm, was a large merchant vessel, about 50 metres long. In addition to its main cargo, which was grain, it was full of objects of art, such as bronze and marble statues, fine glassware and jewellery, and a mysterious object, known as the Antikythera Mechanism. Many of these objects (including the Mechanism) were exhibited in a temporary exhibition in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens a few years ago. I remember the exhibition most for its stunning statues, the film of the excavations and – betraying my total lack of sophistication here – the setting: the sea blue walls and the projections of fish swimming on the ceiling. Sadly, the Ethniko Arkhaiologiko Mouseio still hasn’t really cottoned on to what the internet is for and you will find almost no information regarding either the exhibition, or indeed the shipwreck itself, on their website; if you want to find out more, you’ll have to rely on articles in popular magazines. (Or on my memory.)

Cicero’s Mail Order

The well-known Roman fascination for Greek art and culture probably explains the relevant part of the cargo: many wealthy Romans were obsessed with collecting Greek art, including Marcus Tullius Cicero, the famous orator and politician. In February 67 B.C. Cicero wrote to his childhood friend, Titus Pomponius Atticus, a Roman expat living in Athens:

I have raised the £180 for L. Cincius for the statues of Megaric marble, as you advised me. Those figures of Hermes in Pentelic marble with bronze heads, about which you wrote, I have already fallen in love with: so please send them and anything else that you think suits the place, and my enthusiasm for such things, and your own taste — the more, the merrier, and the sooner the better — especially those that you intend for the Gymnasium and the colonnade. For my appreciation for art treasures is so great that I am afraid most people will laugh at me, though I expect encouragement from you. If none of Lentulus’ boats are coming, put them on any ship you like.

(Marcus Tullius Cicero: Letters to Atticus, Vol. I. Letter VIII)

A little later he followed this up with:

I’m awaiting impatiently the statues of Megaric marble and those of Hermes, which you mentioned in your letter. Don’t hesitate to send anything else of the same kind that you have, if it is fit for my Academy. My purse is long enough. This is my little weakness; and what I want especially are those that are fit for a Gymnasium. Lentulus promises his ships. Please bestir yourself about it. (Letter IX)

Cicero owned eight villas and it’s safe to assume that he filled all of them with Greek works of art as far as he was able…

It would have been a nice coincidence of course and would have immediately answered half the questions the archaeologists had if the galley sunk off Antikythera had been carrying the very statues Cicero described above… but, unfortunately, the Antikythera shipwreck is dated from 65 B.C., that is, two years later than Cicero’s letter. All the same, it seems clear that both the grain and the art works were meant for Rome. But where did they come from?

That question may be answered soon.

Human Skeleton Recovered from the Antikythera Wreck

At the end of August this year, on the very first day of a new season of excavations conducted jointly by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, a human skeleton was recovered from the seabed. This, apparently, is rare: most victims of shipwreck get swept away and are eaten by fish. Nevertheless, this is the fifth time that human remains were recovered from the Antikythera wreck – the ship must have gone to the bottom fast, trapping crew and passengers inside. The archaeologists now have high hopes of a successful DNA analysis that would tell them where in the Mediterranean seaboard this most recently found passenger or crew member was from.

A Mystery Object: The Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera Mechanism. Photo via Wikipedia.
The Antikythera Mechanism. Photo via Wikipedia.

The most famous item recovered from the Greek galley, however, is the so-called Antikythera Mechanism: a large and complex object whose purpose baffled archaeologists for decades. The mechanism is so complex and so ahead of its time scientifically that no-one at first could make sense of it. Consensus now has been reached that it’s a complex astronomical device, predicting solar cycles – go figure. Some commentators even called it an analogue computer. Who did it belong to and why was it being transported across the Aegean is still anybody’s guess.

But that’s the beauty of an ongoing excavation. What else is going to come up from the bottom of the Aegean Sea?

Links:
You wouldn't know but The Secret of the Greek Galley is actually the title of the fictionalised account of the discovery and excavation of the Grand Congloué shipwreck by a Hungarian children's author.
⇒ More on the Antikythera Mechanism.Cicero's Letters to Atticus online.
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