“A surgeon is not allowed any emotion when holding a scalpel; it’s the same with archaeologist/divers. I tried to feel nothing when I was cleaning the area around the human skeleton we found at a depth of 50 meters, so that we could recover the bones 2,000 years after the Antikythera shipwreck went down. There is no room for emotion, just complete concentration and respect for science. This was not, after all, a surface find but the result of excavation in a section of the seabed which required incredible care as human remans in wrecks are very rare and incredibly sensitive,” says Theotokis Theodoulou, a veteran archaeologist at the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities.
“But then at night, when I went to bed, with the bones of this stranger in my room, I began to think about who he may have been, how he died, that he probably didn’t manage to escape and was trapped in the ship’s hold. I felt that we were his people who retrieved him from the sea, found his body waiting for us in the solitude of the deep since 70 BC, and then, with that thought, I became emotional. We will never know his name, but genetic and anthropological tests can tell us the gender, age, dietary habits and possibly what work he did, depending on the muscles he used most on the job. The first indications, without there being any concrete evidence yet, is that the remains belong to a young man.”
We are with Theodoulou at Koules Fortress in Iraklio, Crete, and the archaeologist is describing one of the most exciting discoveries made during this year’s research of the shipwreck off the southern Greek island of Antikythera as part of excavations that started in the 2012-13 period. It has been just a few days since he dove down to the ancient wreck and he is trying to get his strength back from the arduous task.
Born in the village of Morfo in the now Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus in 1968, and raised in Paphos, Theodoulou came to Greece to study at university in Athens and is now a permanent resident of Crete. He has been excavating shipwrecks for more than 20 years, is a member of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities under its director, Angeliki Simosi, and is also a close associate and friend of Dr Brendan Foley, the American archaeologist who represents the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and with whom he leads the Antikythera shipwreck excavation team.
“The discovery of finds leads you to attempt an understanding of how the ship went down. The Antikythera wreck must have been a ship carrying a very heavy load, about 30-40 meters long, with a large mast and two oars at its stern to steer it,” he says. “We believe that it came from a port on the coast of Anatolia and was headed to Rome, filled with works of art and technology, valuable objects from the Aegean region. It went down very close to the rocks on the island’s northeastern coast, evidently after having smashed against them in strong winds that are quite prevalent in the area. The incident must have happened very fast, possibly at night, and so some of the crew or passengers were unable to reach the deck and were crushed by the cargo. That said, we don’t know whether those who managed to jump into the water made it either. Homer related how the waves smashed Odysseus’ companions on the sharp rocks.”
The divers from Symi who first discovered the wreck in 1900-01 brought up dozens of sculptures, luxury goods, parts of a mechanism (which no one at the time could identify) and utilitarian objects. In 1953, French naval officer and explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau sailed past the area and had the location of the wreck pointed out to him by locals. He returned in 1976, finding, among other discoveries, parts of four human skeletons, one of which was believed to belong to a woman. Today, the Antikythera wreck is regarded as one of the most important ancient shipwrecks in the world, not just because of its cargo but also because it led to the creation of the science of underwater archaeology.
“On the first day of the expedition, which took place in August and September, we found the fifth skeleton at the bottom of Section D, which we have been processing since 2015,” says Theodoulou. “The discovery exhilarated the team. We were briefed so that we could bring the bones and skull up to the surface without affecting the ancient genetic material. Last May, we had found a 100-kilogram lead weight near the skeleton, which was used either in some kind of crane on the ship or for defense, as such projectiles were thrown at approaching hostile ships, according to Thucydides. This led us to the conclusion that the heaviest cargo rolled to that position as the ship went down.”
The Greek Ministry of Culture is now expected to grant special permission to Danish DNA expert Hannes Schroeder to examine samples of the skull and teeth so we can learn more about the skeleton’s identity. For now, though, the archaeologists have decided to christen it Pamphilos after the name found engraved on a cup in the wreck.
The Koules Fortress
We met Theodoulou at the Venetian-era Koules Fortress so that we could tour the interior, which recently reopened to the public after a five-year renovation. This is one of Crete’s most splendid monuments and several of the larger halls on the ground floor have been used to display finds such as amphorae, anchors, cannons and utilitarian objects from ancient and Byzantine-era wrecks off the coast of Iraklio, particularly from the islet of Dia.
“The work that has been done here by the Iraklio Ephorate of Antiquities and its chief Vaso Sythiakaki, and the collaboration between that service and ours, has been really exceptional,” says Theodoulou. “This is the ideal location, right beside the sea, to showcase underwater finds that had been stored in the fortress’s basements until now.”
One of the most impressive displays is of two huge cannons from the La Therese, a vessel in the French fleet that was sunk in the harbor of Iraklio in 1669 just before the city fell into Ottoman hands. That naval battle was the last push by Western forces to help the Venetians break a 20-year siege.