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

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

Especially noteworthy among the artifacts is the massive marble head, not the bust of just any mythological hero but likely that of the headless statue of Hercules housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, also made of Parian marble.

The headless “Farnese” type Hercules housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (via Wikimedia Commons)

The new excavations are part of a multi-year (2021–2025) project led by the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece, the Ephorate of Antiquities of Euboea, and the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities under the direction of Angeliki Simosi and Lorenz Baumer. The site of the Antikythera wreck is off the coast of the eponymous island, which sits between the Peloponnese of mainland Greece and the island of Crete and in antiquity was often referred to as Aigila. 

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

In 1900, a boat with divers and oarsmen en route to North Africa was delayed by bad weather near the island and its passengers decided to search for sponges in the meantime. As maritime archaeologist Alexandros Tourtas has reconstructed, the divers found what they believed to be corpses upon a first deep dive — but these were in fact the ship’s cargo of dozens of marble and bronze sculptures. The newly discovered colossal head of Hercules, which corresponds to the National Archaeological Museum’s sculpture, is a “Farnese” type, which generally shows the warrior leaning or weary from his labors as he rests against an object with his club in one hand. 

Partial remains of the Hellenistic era Antikythera Mechanism found in 1901, often referred to as the “first analog computer,” now at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (via Flickr)

In the original explorations of the wreckage at the turn of the century, and then in subsequent excavations by researchers such as Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the crew of the Calypso in 1976, hundreds of other objects were found. These go far beyond the Antikythera Mechanism and the headless Hercules: An intact bronze statue called the “Antikythera Youth” was also recovered, along with the head of a Stoic philosopher, bronze statuettes, amphorae, ceramics, and a number of coins. Many of these coins came from cities in ancient Asia Minor (modern Turkey), such as Pergamon and Ephesus, suggesting the ship was traveling from this area, perhaps on its way to Rome or Italy to sell its sculpture and cargo or to deliver orders already placed. 

The recovered Hercules head after being removed from the seafloor for measuring and examination (photo by Nikos Giannoulakis, courtesy the Return to Antikythera Project)

The wreck is not just important to art historians or to the reconstruction of ancient trade routes, but also to our understanding of the travelers, merchants, and sailors of the ancient Mediterranean. Bioarchaeological remains — that is, material from animals and humans — are a fundamental part of the ancient tale told by the wreckage. During their dives in the 1970s, Cousteau’s team discovered bones from 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 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 found in this 2022 season of excavations add another important piece of evidence, which could provide a window into “the person’s sex, hair and eye color, and ancestral origin,” as bioarchaeologist and ancient DNA expert Kristina Killgrove remarked in 2016.  “And should the collagen and DNA be particularly high quality, perhaps we could even get a full genome,” she said of the earlier findings. 

Modern exploration of the Antikythera shipwreck has benefited greatly from a number of technological tools such as underwater photogrammetry and 3D mapping, which have made underwater archaeology a more exciting field than ever. And the Antikythera wreck is only one of many professional underwater excavations underway — around 600 new wrecks have been found since 1992 alone. Ancient economy experts such as Julia Strauss and Andrew Wilson at the Oxford Roman Economy Project have published a database of known ancient Mediterranean shipwrecks up to the year 1500 CE, with almost 1,800 entries that include these new discoveries. The findings continue to astound, 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. 

Sarah E. Bond is associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. She blogs on antiquity and digital humanities, and is the author of Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean.