Discovered in 1900 by Greek sponge divers seeking refuge from a storm, the ancient shipwreck off the island of Antikythera in the Aegean Sea remains the largest of its kind ever found, and one of the most perplexing to archaeologists. But a team of archaeologists and oceanographers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture recently stumbled on what could be a major breakthrough: a human skeleton, presumably belonging to one of the ship’s passengers or crew members who perished when a violent storm sunk the ship back in 65 B.C. It is the first set of human remains recovered from the ancient wreck in the age of DNA analysis, and scientists hope it will help answer some enduring questions about the ship and those who sailed on it.
On August 31, the first day of the second expedition to the Antikythera shipwreck this season, the team of divers excavating the wreck made a stunning find about 165 feet (50 meters) below the surface. As Brendan Foley, a marine archaeologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and co-director of the expedition, described the moment to CNN: “It was the first dive on the first day, within three minutes of hitting the bottom and a couple of hand swipes to move away the sediment, long bones appeared and then the skull. It was pretty exciting.”
The team was able to extract a skull, complete with jaw and three teeth, along with two arm bones, two femurs (leg bones), rib fragments and other remains from the seafloor under the shipwreck. They left other portions of the 2,100-year-old skeleton behind, still buried in the sand, to be excavated later.
It’s extremely rare to find human remains in an ancient shipwreck, as the bodies of victims are usually swept away or eaten by fish. Of the handful of those that have been recovered, the most well documented examples have come from the Antithykera wreck itself. In 1976, the famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau visited the wreck with a team, recovering more than 300 artifacts, including skeletal remains of at least four individuals, including a young man, a woman and a teenager of unknown sex.
The skeleton found in August represents the first human remains recovered from the Antikythera shipwreck since the advent of DNA analysis. Soon after making the discovery, Foley’s team contacted Dr. Hannes Schroeder, an expert in ancient DNA from the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. After traveling to the site to view the remains, Schroeder declared them to be in surprisingly good condition, given that they’ve spent more than 2,000 years at the bottom of the Aegean Sea.
Once Greek authorities grant permission, samples of the skeleton will be sent to Schroeder’s laboratory, where he will try to extract enough viable DNA to pinpoint the individual’s ethnicity and geographic origin. Judging from the size of the femur bone and the unworn teeth, the skeleton is believed to be that of a male in his early 20s. Foley and his colleagues playfully dubbed him “Pamphilos,” meaning “friend to everyone” in Greek. The name was found etched on a drinking vessel Cousteau recovered from the wreck in 1976.
Experts believe the Antikythera shipwreck was a large Greek trade or cargo ship carrying grain back in 65 B.C. They think a violent storm hit the ship, crashing it against the rocks and breaking it apart so quickly that many passengers and crew may have been trapped below decks. Since the initial discovery of the wreck in 1900, various teams excavating the underwater site have come back with an abundance of ancient treasures, ranging from wine jars and glassware to bronze spears and gold jewelry. By far the most intriguing—and famous—artifact recovered from the wreck is the so-called Antikythera Mechanism. This sophisticated clockwork device, apparently built to calculate the movements of stars and planets and predict astronomical events such as eclipses, has been called the world’s oldest computer.
This wealth of artifacts found on board the ship suggest that, in addition to grain, the vessel was carrying luxury items from the eastern Mediterranean region, probably intended for wealthy buyers in Rome. At the time the ship sank, the Roman Republic was a few decades from becoming the Roman Empire, while the once brilliant Greek civilization was on the decline after Roman conquest of Greek cities.
Both the team excavating the wreck and the scientists waiting to analyze the recently recovered skeleton’s DNA hope the find will shed new light on this vibrant period of history by revealing where exactly the ship may have originated, and who might have been traveling aboard. “Your mind starts spinning,” Schroeder told Nature. “Who were those people who crossed the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago? Maybe one of them was the astronomer who owned the mechanism.”