The Antikythera shipwreck

Who needs another Antikythera post? Apparently I do; I wanted one where all the information would be in one place – precise and concise, with lots of links for further reading. At about 2,000 words, it didn’t turn out as concise as I’d like, but, after all, this was a remarkable find by any standards.

The shipwreck was an archaeologist’s dream: full of amazing items, among which several beautiful statues, including some rare bronze masterpieces. No wonder archaeologists paid little attention to a few lumps of corroded metal hauled up along with the others; they comprised what is now known as the Mechanism of Antikythera.

A century later, the situation has been reversed: any internet search turns up thousands of articles on the Mechanism and few about the statues that caused such a sensation when first discovered.

The Mechanism deserves a post all of its own (see my next one). In this post, I’m going to present the other amazing finds that were recovered from the Antikythera shipwreck during the 1901 and 1976 expeditions. Of the discoveries of the 2014-15 expedition little is known at the moment, while many more artifacts still lie at the bottom of the sea.

An unexpected discovery

In the Spring of 1900, on their way to the sponge beds off the coast of Tunisia, two small craft of sponge divers from the island of Symi were caught by a storm. They sought refuge in a bay of Antikythera, a small island in the south of Greece. While waiting, the men started diving[1]; one discovered statues half-buried in the sand and came back holding a bronze statue’s hand. The divers proceeded to their destination and in November, after their return, they alerted the Greek state which reacted immediately. Soon, with the aid of the sponge divers, 378 objects were hauled up from the deep; the weather and several occurrences of the “bends,” including one death, put an end to the expedition[2] in September 1901.

In 1976, the site was revisited, in a collaborative expedition between the Greek Inspectorate of Antiquities and the famous Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Using modern diving gear, a small submersible vehicle and a vacuum hose, the team was able to retrieve several artifacts between July and November.

After a brief survey of the island’s coast in 2012, marine archaeologist Brendan P. Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities began the latest expedition to the island in 2014. Using mixed gas closed circuit rebreathers, and an Exosuit which may descend to 300m (1000ft), the team have already discovered tantalising finds which may alter our perception of the ship and its cargo.

The cargo

The ship’s main cargo was bronze and marble statuary of Greek origin and manufacture; it also carried other luxury items such as jewelry, expensive furniture, and colorful glass vessels. It also had wine, from various Greek areas.

Bronze statues

By far the most spectacular find of the shipwreck, its bronze statues, excited archaeologists not only because of their top quality, but also because bronze statuary is extremely hard to find – the vast majority of ancient bronze statues have been melted down and recast.

The bronze statues found in Antikythera fall in two main categories:

  1. original Greek works of the classical (510-323 BCE) and Hellenistic (323-31 BCE) periods and
  2. late Hellenistic works imitating the classical style

Of the originals, the best known is perhaps the “youth of Antikythera” a life-size statue of a naked young man, who held something in his extended right hand.  The statue, which dates from 340-330 BCE, has been variously identified as Perseus, holding Medusa’s head, Paris, holding the Apple of Discord, an athlete and many others, but the lack of any identifying elements prevents any certainty.

The “Philosopher of Antikythera,” of which only parts have been recovered, is the statue of a bearded middle-aged man with disheveled hair. It dates from around 240 BCE. No one knows for certain who he is; his intense look is exaggerated due to the inlaid irises contrasting sharply with the dark color of his corroded bronze face.

Various other small statues have been found, all of them late 2nd century copies or adaptations of classical works.

The site also yielded several members of different sizes which raises the tantalizing possibility that their corresponding statues may still lie at the bottom of the sea waiting to be discovered.

Marble statues

Thirty-six marble statues have been recovered from the wreck; those that were covered by sediment retain their original beauty, while those that were exposed are so badly damaged by marine organisms that they resemble shapeless rocks. Some were only half buried and have a striking half-and-half appearance.

All the marble statues are late Hellenistic works, dating from shortly before the shipwreck. Most of them copy or are inspired by earlier Greek works, whether classical or Hellenistic. There is also some original artwork, such as those depicting Homeric heroes. Three horses and a fourth, that has not been recovered, probably belonged to a missing chariot.

All the statues are made of Paros marble, suggesting they were all made at the same location, probably a workshop in an Aegean island or on the coast of Asia Minor.


Before the 1st century BCE, glass was a luxury item. Even after the blown glass technique was invented, glass remained primarily an object of beauty and its manufacture focused on producing items with a striking appearance. The glassware found in the Antikythera wreck must have been luxury vessels for sale, not for daily use by the crew. 

Once the marine incrustations that covered them were removed, the glass items from Antikythera were found virtually intact. The monochrome or colorful vessels are a good sample of the glass making techniques of their time and prove trade links with the coast of Syria and perhaps Egypt.


The ship carried a large quantity of red-slip pottery, mostly bowls and plates, as part of its cargo. The style, produced in the Eastern Mediterranean, was widely popular at the time and much sought after.


Red-slip tableware for sale.


Parts of at least three luxury couches were recovered from Antikythera. The couches, of the type used for symposia (drinking parties) had bronze decorative fittings on the feet and headrests; parts of the wooden frame have also survived.


Wine in antiquity was transported in amphorae[3], the typical vessel found in every ancient shipwreck. Their odd shape allows safe stacking in a ship’s hold; the pointed bottoms were wedged between the necks of the bottom layer, minimizing the chance of cargo displacement. These transport vessels were much like today’s bottles: they were everywhere and each “brand” (that is every wine-producing area) had its own trademark shape, which helps archaeologists identify where they came from. As if that wasn’t enough information, these shapes changed subtly over time, allowing us to date them too (unfortunately, not down to a particular vintage 😉 ).

At least 4 different kinds of amphorae have been discovered in the Antikythera shipwreck; most came from the islands of Rhodes, Kos and Ephesus (areas known for their wine) and were probably part of the cargo. Others were from the Adriatic Sea and could have been for the crew, or used to store water.

Smaller vessels with one handle, called lagenoi, were also found at the wreck, presumably containing a different kind of wine.


Amphorae, as they were found at the site of the wreck.


More than 40 copper coins were found at Antikythera, together with a small hoard of 36 silver ones. The small denomination copper coins must have been used by the crew for their transactions at various ports where the ship anchored. Of them, only 6 were identifiable: three are from Sicily (two from Katane and 1 from Panormos) and three from Asia Minor (2 from Ephesus and 1 from Knidos). The silver coins were cistophoric tetradrahms[4], a type of coinage used in areas around Pergamon, in Asia Minor. Thirty-two were from Pergamon itself and 4 from Ephesus.


It is not know whether the few pieces of jewelry that have been recovered belonged to a passenger or were part of the ship’s cargo. They certainly were beautifully crafted and most had inlaid precious or semiprecious stones. 


The ship

The Antikythera ship was made using the shell-first method, typical of this period: first the keel was set, followed by the stempost and sternpost; then the planking gave the hull its shape; lastly the frame was attached. The planks were edge-joined by wooden tenons, fitted into mortises cut into the edge of each plank. After these were fitted, the joinery was held in place by treenails driven into appropriately drilled holes. More treenails joined the planking with the frame, secured by long bronze spikes. Finally, the lower part of the ship was sheathed in thin lead sheeting, for extra protection from the water.

This was a sail ship and some of the sail rings have been recovered. A lead pipe -presumably part of a pump to drain water from the ship- and sounding weights have also been found.

The ship was believed to have been a merchantman, about 30m long and 10m wide (about 100x30ft), with a capacity of 300 tons. New discoveries suggest that this assumption may have been wrong and the vessel much larger, but that remains to be seen.

It certainly was large enough to have had a galley roofed with large ceramic tiles, where food was cooked for the crew and (possibly) passengers.

 The people on board

The Antikythera shipwreck was the first ancient shipwreck where human remains were found. The scattered and incomplete skeletal remains belong to at least 4 individuals: a 25-year-old man, a young woman, and two individuals of unknown gender, a teenager and an adult. The woman was probably a passenger; in the days before ferries, it was common for merchant vessels to boost their profits by taking passengers.

The narrow space, cramped living conditions and dangers of the trip must have made travelling a less than idyllic experience. Cooperation and social skills must have been necessary to avoid friction on board.

Daily life on the ship

From the number of cookware that has been found, it is certain that the crew cooked their meals on board. Their meals consisted probably of some kind of bread or porridge (it carried a quern for grinding grain), various salted items kept in jars (probably fish or even meat) and perhaps dried fruit or vegetables. Snail shells have been found, as well as olive stones. Also, some lead objects have been identified as fishnet weights, so perhaps they fished too. They drank wine – resin residue on some vessels suggests that it was perhaps resinated.

When dark, they used oil lamps for light and (judging from the game pieces and parts of bone flutes that have been found) some may have had enough free time to indulge in games and play music.

Where was it coming from?

The ship’s contents speak volumes about its history before it sank: the coins prove that it had docked in several Mediterranean ports before undertaking its last voyage. Its cargo, also from various places, is a testament to the flourishing Mediterranean trade of the time, when the sea was crisscrossed by merchant craft joining its various ports in a constant stream of exchange.

When did it sink?

All the coins recovered from the wreck were issued between 104 and 67 BCE; of the silver ones in particular, none are from the mints of 59-49, which bore names of Roman officials – this is a good indication that the ship sank before 59 BCE, probably sometime between 80-60 BCE.

Where was it going?

All experts agree that the destination of this ship must have been a Roman port. At the time the ship sank, Rome was going through a period of aggressive expansion, mainly towards the east. As large swathes of the Greek world were added to what was to become a sprawling Empire, the Romans were captivated by Greek culture which suddenly became all the rage. Upper class Romans competed among themselves in displaying their wealth and superior taste by decorating their homes with Greek artwork. As the wealthiest owned one or more villas on the countryside, the need to furnish them with paintings, mosaics, sculpture and furniture fuelled a huge market for looted, sold or newly crafted Greek works of art. Cicero, the Roman politician and orator, owned 8 villas himself, in addition to his house in Rome; around 70 BCE, he was in frequent correspondence with Titus Pomponius Atticus, a Roman intellectual settled in Athens, asking him to buy marble and bronze sculptures on his behalf and arrange for them to be sent to Italy by ship.

It was about that time that a ship laden with Greek treasure was on its way to Rome. Caught by a storm about halfway there, it struck the rocks off the coast of Antikythera and sank without ever reaching its destination. Its crew and precious cargo rested undisturbed, except for the currents, until a chance discovery brought them back to light, more than 20 centuries later.



Image sources:

1900 expedition:

1976 expedition:

Latest expedition:

All the other images are mine, from the exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece.

Further reading:

All links in the text refer to web pages consulted for the composition of this article.

However, my major source of information has been the catalog of the Antikythera Exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens:

The Antikythera Shipwreck. The Ship, The Treasures, The Mechanism. National Archaeological Museum, April 2012 – April 2013“. Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism; National Archaeological Museum. Editors Nikolaos Kaltsas & Elena Vlachogianni & Polyxeni Bouyia. Athens: Kapon, 2012, ISBN 978-960-386-031-0.

A virtual tour of the exhibition is available online.


[1] The equipment used at the time was the Standard Diving Dress.

[2] 1900-1901: the Discovery, Return to Antikythera, retrieved April 9th, 2016.

[3] Singular: amphora (meaning two-handled vessel).

[4] Cistophoric: bearing the sacred chest of god Dionysus. Tetradrachm: having a nominal value of 4 drachmas.


13 comments on “The Antikythera shipwreck

  1. I have to say that I’ve stumbled upon your blog quite by accident (searching for orange trees in Athens, imagine 🙂 ) and I am delighted. So many interesting articles and a lot of knowledge that you share. Thank you for your effort in everything you are doing. May I can say that among the Greek historical treasure you are a human treasure. If I ever come to Greece I will ask for you. Greetings from Croatia.

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