Antikythera treasures

14. March 2011 12:03

Antikythera youth c. Jo MarchantThe wreck of Antikythera, discovered by sponge divers in 1900, is most famous for the clockwork astronomical computer found on board. But it also contained one of the richest hauls of objects ever found from the ancient world - from bronze swords, statues and thrones to golden jewellery and luxury glassware.

I was reminded of this on Saturday, when I was interviewed for an episode of a programme called Museum Secrets, to be shown on National Geographic in the autumn. It will focus on the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, telling the stories of various objects held there, including the Antikythera mechanism. The rest of the sponge divers' haul is at the Athens museum too, so I thought I'd write a post on it: What else did they find? And is there anything still down at the bottom of the sea?

The Greek government hired the sponge divers to salvage what they could from the wreck, with the help of the navy, during a gruelling ten-month expedition in 1900-1901. According to the official report of the expedition, published (in Greek) by the Archaeological Society of Athens in 1902, their finds included bronze swords, pieces of a bronze throne, and bronze bedsteads engraved with busts of women and lions. There was also jewellery, for example a golden earring in the form of a baby holding a lyre, as well as a full-sized lyre, plus jugs, flagons, kettles, lamps, bottles and a silver wine jar. 

Statues in courtyard of Athens museum

Gorgeous and perfectly preserved glassware (described here) included an elegant blue-green bowl carved with a floral design, and a set of mosaic dishes in which stripes of rose, green, purple, yellow and turquoise glass had been coiled into tiny spirals and melted together. There were piles of amphoras (storage jars with pointed bottoms used for transporting food and other goods), one of them with olive pits still inside. But most notable were hundreds of bronze and marble statues, mostly of men and horses, but also some women, and a colossal marble bull. 

After two thousand years in the sea the marble statues were horribly disfigured; their smooth sculpted surfaces had literally been eaten away by hungry sea creatures. As they arrived at the museum, they were piled up in a courtyard, to eerie effect (see pic, above). 

Crouching boy c. Jo Marchant

One of the few marbles that isn't completely ruined is this crouching boy - one of my favourite exhibits when I visited the Athens museum on a sunny November day in 2006 (see pic, left). This statue was half buried by sand, which protected it from the corrosive effects of the sea. The boy's right side is almost perfectly preserved, but on the left, his limbs have been munched away to stumps.

The bronze statues were mostly found in pieces - disembodied heads, hands, feet and smaller fragments. But they were actually in better shape than the marbles because their surfaces had reacted with seawater to form an inert layer that protected the material from further decay.

For example, there's a lovely bronze head of an old man, probably from the third century BC (see pic, below). It's in the style of a Greek philosopher, and because of realistic features such as the wrinkles, it's thought to be a portrait of a particular person, although no one knows who. It comes originally from a full statue - the arms and sandalled feet were also found.

But the most impressive bronze find was a graceful naked male, nicknamed the Antikythera Youth (see top photo). Originally found in more than twenty pieces, it was put back together in the early 1900s by a French sculptor called Alfred André. His efforts were severely criticised, however. In the 1950s the statue was taken apart again and reassembled in a slightly different position - to everyone's satisfaction it seems - by a Greek renovator called Christos Karouzos.

Philosopher's head

The Antikythera Youth is thought to be from the fourth century BC, perhaps not one of the very finest Greek statues ever made, but certainly of high quality. It isn't known where it is from, who the sculptor was, or who the statue was meant to be of.

There are some clues though. At nearly two metres tall the statue is slightly larger than life, so experts think it represents a god or hero rather than a mortal. And traces of bronze still attached to the statue's fingers show that it originally held something spherical in its raised right hand. Suggestions from Greek mythology have included Perseus holding up the severed head of Medusa (her hair in a tight spherical bun); Paris displaying, or preparing to throw, the apple of discord; or a young, beardless Herakles (the Greek version of the Roman hero Hercules), perhaps picking a golden apple in the Garden of the Hesperides. There's much more on the statue, including photos of the reconstructions and diagrams showing how it is put together, in this 2006 PhD thesis (pdf file). 

Surprisingly the ship itself turned out to be not Greek but Roman. Judging from the origin of storage jars, plates, coins etc on board, she sailed from the Asia Minor coast in 70-60 BC. When she sank she was probably on her way west to Rome, perhaps carrying looted cargo (Roman armies, led by the general Pompey, were sweeping through this region at the time).

Could there be more treasures still lying at the wreck site? The sponge divers believed that there was plenty left when a combination of bad weather and exhaustion finally forced them to end their salvage expedition in the summer of 1901. The diving pioneer Jacques Cousteau led another salvage project at the site in the 1970s, which he filmed for a documentary called Diving for Roman Plunder. His divers brought up plenty of small objects, including ship nails, coins, a lamp, two elegant bronze statuettes on rotating bases, and a human skull.

So it's unlikely that there is still anything lying exposed at the wreck site. But Cousteau had limited time for his expedition too, and without the gas mixtures that are available today for deep diving the divers could only spend short bursts of time working at the 60-metre-deep site. So it's very likely that there are still buried objects there, say cargo stored in the lower parts of the ship, now covered by the sediment that settled on the wreck over millennia. This would be hard for any subsequent expedition to get at (if indeed it was felt appropriate to carry out such an invasive excavation). But the items might be better preserved than those found so far.

The hull of the ship itself may also survive under the sand. Cousteau's colleague Frederic Dumas described poking around in the sand with a pipe during a 1953 dive at the site in his wonderful book 30 Centuries under the Sea:

"...the pipe ran right into the hull of the sunken ship, which was perfectly preserved under a foot and a half of sand. If only I had more time!"

A third possibility is that more items from the wreck are lying undiscovered in deeper water. The ship settled on a sloping shelf of rock, near to a cliff that drops down to greater depth. So some objects could presumably have fallen down there as the wreck sank. The Archaeological Society's 1902 report also says that several large boulders, lying on top of the wreck, were heaved out of the way and over the cliff before it was realised that these were actually enormous (but very corroded and overgrown) statues. And it describes how a large statue of a horse that tore loose from its chains as it was being winched onto a boat, tumbling down into the depths.


Update on Egyptian antiquities

10. March 2011 13:18

Gilded King Tut statue spear fishing from reed boat

Here's an update on the fast-moving situation regarding Egyptian antiquities. I wrote on Monday about the resignation of Zahi Hawass, Egypt's top antiquities official. I reported that the new prime minister Essam Sharaf had dissolved the newly-created Department of Antiquities and restored the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), under the ministry of culture. The head of the SCA's Lower Egypt division, Mohammed Abdel Maksoud, seemed to have been chosen as its new head.

Well, as I was writing that, hundreds of archaeologists were marching on government to protest that decision. In response, Sharaf agreed to make the SCA independent, in other words it will be under the direct supervision of the cabinet, rather than part of the culture ministry.

The last I heard is that the SCA will be choosing its new head/minister in a referendum on 18 March, from the following list of candidates:


1-د.علاء شاهين Dr. Ala Shahine

2-د.عبد الحليم نور الدين Dr Abd el Halim Nur al Din
3-د.صبري عبد العزيز Dr Sabry al Aziz (was Hawass's no. 2)

4-د.محمودعمر Dr. Mamdouh Amr
5-د.حسن سليم Dr. Hassan Selim, professor at Ain Shams University
6-د.ممدوح الدماطي Dr Mamdouh AlDamaty, former director of the Cairo Museum
7-د.علي رضوان Dr Ali Radwan, former professor at Cairo University

But perhaps it has all changed again by now!

Blogs like Margaret Maitland's Eloquent Peasant have continued to follow the latest on the looting situation. She links to this document, compiled by the Penn Cultural Heritage Centre, which details the antiquities currently known to be missing fom Egypt (including the lovely statue of Tutankhamun spear fishing, pictured). On 7 March, Tarek El Awadi, director of the Egyptian Museum, and other archaeologists in Egypt released an open letter to Sharaf urging him to make it a top priority to return police to archaeological sites to protect them against looters.

Meanwhile a group of Egyptologists based in the UK and Egypt has posted on the New Statesman's culture blog, complaining about the "racism and intolerance" that they say characterises many of the reactions abroad to the safeguarding of Egypt's antiquities following the revolution. The authors point out that many Egyptians have fought hard to protect these sites. They write: "Egypt can secure its heritage in its own way within its own borders, and has all the experts it needs in conservation and historical knowledge. Outside pressure needs to end."

They argue that the international community should examine its own role in supporting the international black market in stolen antiquities. The authors propose that Western governments should end practices that promote looting, for example making it illegal to sell or buy undocumented antiquities. They also say that requests from Egypt for the return of antiquities should be honoured, and that all countries should support a shift towards Egyptian archaeology that is done by Egyptians in Egypt.


Egypt's antiquities chief resigns

7. March 2011 16:18

For an outsZahi Hawass in northern Egypt, May 2010. c. Voice of Americaide observer at least, it is hard to imagine Egyptology without the country's top antiquities official, Zahi Hawass. Since he became head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in 2002, he has been a familiar figure in TV documentaries -- tracking down long-lost mummies, supervising state-of-the-art scientific projects and roaming the country in search of "new" finds.

He has featured regularly in newspaper headlines too. Hawass's energy and enthusiasm have raised the profile of Egypt's antiquities, and the numerous documentaries, as well as touring museum exhibitions of pharaohs' treasures, have brought in much-needed cash. But his critics have accused him of everything from using his position to boost his own media profile, to corruption (an allegation that he denies).

Shortly before President Mubarak was ousted by the recent uprising, he converted the SCA into a new government department of antiquities with Hawass as its minister. But last Thursday Hawass told the New York Times that if asked to continue in that role he would refuse, complaining that the police are not doing enough to protect Egypt's archaeological sites from looters. He had previously downplayed the risk of looting on his blog, saying that sites were safe, but on Thursday he reversed that position, posting a long list of affected sites across the country.

As a long-time ally of Mubarak, it is far from certain that Hawass would have kept his job under the new regime anyway. But his comments about the extent of the looting are still pretty worrying. On Saturday I asked Hawass about what he hopes to achieve by resigning, his fears for Egypt's archaeological sites, and whether he would consider staying on in any SCA or government role. I've included the full interview below.

I've written two stories about the situation, one for New Scientist on Friday about the possible extent of the looting, and one for Nature today about the implications of Hawass's departure. Last night the caretaker prime minister Essam Sharaf named a new cabinet, and got rid of the newly-created antiquities department, reinstating the SCA. Its new head has not yet been officially announced but I'm told it will be Mohammed Abdel Maksoud, the head of the SCA's Lower Egypt division and an archaeologist who has worked for many years in the Nile delta region.

My interview with Zahi Hawass (5 Mar):

JM: Why have you decided to resign?

ZH: I resigned because of three main things:

· During the earlier protests, Egyptian youths and the police protected the museums and monuments. Only the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was broken into and, thank God, all the important objects inside it were safe and only a few things were lost or broken. A report of exactly what is missing is still being compiled, however. Magazines were looted, but after initially appearing to get back to normal, the situation has recently become worse and there are many reports of thefts and illegal excavation. This is my most recent announcement:
· Since the revolution, many people have continued to protest over other things, such as against me over jobs and salaries. Unfortunately, it is not possible to provide everything that everyone is asking for. In the Ministry of State for Antiquities, we need money to protect sites and to restore buildings and objects too. We need the money brought in by tourists who visit our sites and museums to fund these things and, at the moment, there are no tourists.
· Crooks in the Ministry and at the University of Cairo have started to attack me personally. I cannot stand this!

Most importantly, however, is that there are not enough police to protect the sites. I hope that my resignation will encourage the government to do something about this and also encourage the international community to put pressure on it do so as well.

JM: What does this mean for your position as head of the SCA - will that position still exist, and if so will you continue to hold it?

ZH: Some weeks ago, the SCA became the Ministry of State for Antiquities. Having been a minister, I cannot go back to being the head of the SCA. It is a lower position and in a sense no longer exists. I have to step down from everything.

JM: In the meantime, what efforts have you been making to protect Egypt's archaeological sites?

ZH: I cannot do anything to protect the sites now. I hope that my successor will continue the projects that I started though and achieve things like I did.

JM: What is your greatest fear for Egypt's antiquities?

ZH: I am most fearful for the Giza plateau, the love of my life, at which I have lived, excavated and looked after for most of my life and made some of my most important discoveries. I built a big wall around the pyramids to protect them from building work and was working on a site management plan that will help make it beautiful again and restore its magic. It will stop cars, camels and horses accessing the site and tourists will be able visit the monuments in electric trams: However, the camel owners started to put up signs during the revolution saying that I was stealing antiquities, when they are the ones doing the damage there!

JM: What would you like to see the army doing at these sites?

ZH: The army cannot do anything. They cannot run after people; this is the duty of the police and that is why we are all waiting for them to come back and do their job as before.

JM: How easy is it to get clear information about any looting or illegal excavations that are going on?

ZH: I keep my website as up to date as I can with the information that I have. This is my most recent post:

JM: Have you had offers of help from international organisations? If so, do you think these should be accepted, and whose decision would this be?

ZH: Other than offers to keep an eye out for stolen objects, I have not received any offers of help from international organizations and none at all since my resignation.

JM: If the situation improves, will you reconsider staying on in the cabinet?

ZH: I do not know.

JM: What plans do you have for your own future, if you do not stay in your current post?

ZH: I am still thinking about what I should do in the future.

Since making these comments, Hawass has posted further comments on his own blog, which you can read here and here.