Deep below the surface of the ocean, a group of divers are exploring an ancient wreck. Then, suddenly, muffled squeals of excitement break out through their masks. They have discovered a 2,000-year-old skeleton amongst the debris, and it could help unlock a puzzle that’s been baffling scientists for more than 100 years.
In 2012 a team of archaeologists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts and the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities began excavating the site of an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. Four years later, in August 2016, they made a stunning discovery.
As they explored the wreck site 160 feet underwater, they noticed a human forearm bone sticking out of the seabed. A closer look then revealed more bones – the last remains of an unfortunate soul who went down with the ship some 2,000 years ago.
The team subsequently recovered arm and leg bones, a skull, some teeth and fragments of ribs from the site. In fact, they hoped to retrieve enough human remains to successfully perform DNA sequencing – with the aim of unraveling some of the secrets of this mysterious wreck.
The Antikythera wreck was first discovered back in 1900, when Captain Dimitrios Kondos stopped on the island during a sponge-diving expedition. As his crew waited for the wind to change, they kept themselves occupied by exploring the local waters.
Soon, one diver ascended horrified from the depths. He reported having stumbled upon a gruesome scene, with bodies strewn across the ocean floor. But what initially appeared to be corpses turned out to be marble and bronze statues – the cargo of a ship lost long ago.
Kondos then contacted the Greek authorities, and the Royal Hellenic Navy launched a salvage effort that would continue for more than a year. However, although many artifacts were recovered from the site, work ceased after a diver died as a result of an accident in 1901.
Just over 50 years later, meanwhile, the famous French explorer and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau paid a visit to the site. Then, with the blessing of the Greek authorities, he returned in 1976 with a team of divers and continued on the work of retrieving artifacts from the ancient wreck.
Experts believe that the 130-foot ship had been en route to Rome when it struck rocks and immediately sank to the ocean floor. Moreover, by studying the items found on board, archaeologists were able to determine that the vessel had been lost some time in the first century BC.
In sum, over the course of the two salvage operations, hundreds of treasures were brought up to the surface for the first time in thousands of years. Pottery, gold jewelry and ornate glassware of both Hellenic and Roman origins emerged from the ancient wreck.
But the most fascinating find wasn’t properly discovered until a year after the first operation had ceased in 1902. Valerios Stais, a Greek archaeologist, was inspecting some of the artifacts from the Antikythera site when he noticed something strange.
Stais saw something that looked like a gear wheel embedded in a previously overlooked lump of what seemed to be rock. This chunk was then cracked open, and a mind-boggling array of cogs, wheels and dials were discovered inside.
Initially, scientists were unsure about what to make of the find they dubbed the “Antikythera mechanism.” Stais suspected that he had uncovered a form of astronomical clock – a type of technology that was not thought to have emerged until thousands of years later.
So, for many years, the mechanism was dismissed as belonging to a different time period than the rest of the cargo. However, in 1971 a series of X-rays and CT scans revealed the true nature of what is now considered to be the world’s first analog computer.
Now thought to have been constructed in Greece some time in the second century BC, the mechanism took years to decode. Finally, though, researchers realized that the pointers, dials and inscriptions were used to perform complex astronomical calculations.
In fact, the mechanism would have allowed users to predict – with surprising accuracy – the position of the Sun and Moon, the date of future eclipses, the phases of the Moon and the positions of the planets. Accordingly, in one swoop, it completely transformed modern understanding of the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks.
So far, the question of who made the mechanism and exactly where they were from has remained a mystery. But researchers hope that the skeleton recently discovered among the wreckage of the ship could provide them with some essential clues.
The remains, thought to be of a male in his late teens or early 20s, have been dubbed Pamphilos, or “friend of all,” after the inscription found on a glass cup on a previous expedition. And if the bones contain undamaged DNA, analysis could reveal key information about the ship’s crew – and shine a light on the origins of the mysterious mechanism.
Indeed, as Hannes Schroeder from the Natural History Museum of Denmark would tell The Guardian in September 2016, “Human remains have started to become a source of information that can tell us incredible things about the past.” He added, “Even with a single individual, it gives us a potentially great insight into the crew. Where did they come from? Who were these people?”
Currently, researchers are awaiting the go-ahead from the Greek government to begin the painstaking process of extracting genetic material from the remains. Until then, the real story behind one of the world’s most significant wrecks and the strange artifact that changed history will remain unknown.