Jun 23, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Head of Hercules Found on the 2,000-Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism Shipwreck

In the annals of great archeological finds, the 1900 discovery of what now has become known as the Antikythera wreck is noteworthy in a number of categories. For starters, it’s the remains of a Roman-era ship from the first century BCE. It’s location in the Aegean Sea is at such a challenging depth (148 ft) and location (underneath rubble from an ancient earthquake) that it has attracted the likes of one of the world’s greatest divers -- Jacques Cousteau. Its cargo includes the corroded parts of a device which has been identified as the world's oldest known analog computer and is now known as the Antikythera mechanism. That same cargo hold also contained bronze and marble statues dating back to the fourth century BCE, making it the richest ancient wreck ever discovered. One large and noteworthy statue is the headless body of Hercules. Recently, the Antikythera wreck became the gift that keeps on giving as divers removed some of that earthquake rubble and found the missing head of Hercules. Does this mean he can finally wear hats again?

Hercules with a head

“Marble head of a male bearded figure, bigger than life size, which at first sight can be identified with Herakles (Hercules) of the so-called Farnese type. It most probably belongs to the headless statue of the so-called “Herakles of Antikythera”, inv. no. 5742 of the National Archaeological Museum, which was retrieved by sponge divers in 1900.”

As noted in the press release by the Return to Antikythera Project, this year’s dive paid off well – “linking the contemporary research to the iconic diving operations of 1900-1901.” This was probably one of the most physically challenging set of dives because it involved moving boulders weighing up to 8.5 tons each. In an interesting confluence of technologies, the Swiss watchmaker Hublot provided a customized setup of durable rigging, underwater lifting bags and pressurized air supply to safely lift and remove the earthquake rocks. In fact, the explorations of the Antikythera wreck and subsequent removals of its artifacts have been an impressive set of precision operations in order to preserve the valuable ship and its cargo. For example:

“The exact position and the archaeological context of each finding have been precisely documented during excavation and will be integrated into the 3D model of the site that is under development since October 2022. Samples of sediments have been collected from predetermined areas of the seabed, allowing for a microanalysis that will lead to a better knowledge of the dimensions and precise position of the shipwreck. Together with the ongoing artifacts analysis, the newly applicable microarachaeological practices will enhance the ability to precisely reconstruct the disposition of the wreckage and the conditions of the sinking of the ship sometime during the first half of the 1st century BC.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah … what about the head of Hercules?

According to Professor Lorenz Baumer, the classical archaeologist from the University of Geneva overseeing the underwater recovery, the head, which resembles a gnarly potato (see photos here) is “twice lifesize, has a big beard, a very particular face and short hair.” Baumer has no doubt this head goes with the body of Hercules. At the other end of the statue spectrum, the team of divers also found the base of another marble statue attached to a set of legs but no torso or upper body. Based on the number and quality of the artifacts recovered during the current operation, there is little doubt the rest of this mystery Greek god will be found. However, even the mystery legs and Hercules’ head can’t top the most significant find of the current recovery effort – two human teeth.

“Important information is expected to be extracted from two human teeth, discovered in a solid agglomerate of marine deposits together with fragments of copper, wood and other materials typical of a maritime disaster. Genetic and isotopic analysis of the teeth might be useful to deduce information on the genome and other characteristics relevant to the origin of the individuals they belonged to.”

These are not the first human remains uncovered at the Antikythera wreck site – in 1976, a team led by archaeologist Dr. Lazaros Kolonas recovered nearly 300 artifacts, including human remains of the crew and passengers. And in 2019, the Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities (EUA) operation found more human skeletal remains. However, teeth are the most useful bones for identifying where a person came from, where they grew up, and other useful data that could help the ship and its crew. One popular theory was that this is the vessel of the Roman General Sulla, who had looted Athens in 86 BCE and may have been shipping the treasures to Italy – the Greek writer Lucian mentioned the sinking of one of Sulla's ships in the Antikythera region. But none other than Jacques Cousteau himself debunked that theory in the 1970s when he found coins in the cargo minted between 76 and 67 BCE – after Sulla’s time. Most archeologists still agree that the contents were looted and on their way to Rome or another Italian city.

Did the statue ever look as beautiful as this one? 

“Numerous objects from the ship’s equipment, such as bronze and iron nails, a lead collar of a sizeable wooden anchor, and amorphous iron concretion masses covered by marine deposits have been also recovered. X-ray and other specialized laboratory analysis will help to identify their function.”

Not all of the cargo of the Antikythera wreck is looted statues and human remains. After all, it’s a ship so there are parts of it still intact or strewn about that can help better identify and date it. Those parts could conceivably include more clues to the Antikythera mechanism – a hand-powered mechanical model of the Solar System with the complex workings to make it the oldest example of an analog computer for predicting astronomical positions. The device was written about by scholars of the time and attributed to the Greek mathematician and scientist Archimedes. It’s conceivable that more pieces or even another device could be found. Of course, what today’s scientists would really like is an instruction manual.

“Since the ship was transporting the highest quality of luxury goods, there is a very real possibility of unimaginable finds, similar in importance to the Mechanism.”

It sounds like the members of the Return to Antikythera Project agree.

Paul Seaburn
Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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