In January of 1900, deep divers off the coast of a Greek island took shelter from a storm, and found a two-thousand-year-old shipwreck strewn with bones, loot, and a mysterious artifact, half-buried in the sand. Now a team of underwater archaeologists have uncovered a partial skeleton from the same wreck, in such shockingly good condition that they’re going to attempt a DNA extraction on the remains.
Deep diving is dangerous; divers breathe a different mix of gases while they’re underwater, and nitrogen in their air tanks can cause narcosis, which Jacques Cousteau called the “rapture of the deep.” On the first exploration of the wreck, which is 150 feet down, when the first diver surfaced with reports of bodies and artifacts and even submerged horses, the captain didn’t believe a word of the story: he thought it was nitrogen narcosis making the diver spin such tales. But the diver was fine. By 1901, those deep divers had brought to the surface a hoard of buried treasure, including a mysterious clockwork artifact, corroded and crushed, with a gearwheel sticking out of it and markings that nobody understood. They called it the Antikythera device, after the island near which it was found. They fished out everything they could get off the ocean floor, every amphora and coin they could find, and called it done.
Cousteau heard of the Antikythera device shortly after the first publication about it, by bespectacled British historian Derek de Solla Price. Incredibly, the device had just been mothballed in museum storage for half a century because nobody believed the people of the shipwreck’s era could have built it. When scientists finally took an interest and started imaging it, everyone was stunned at the complexity of the mechanism. Once Cousteau heard of the device, he himself came to investigate the wreck in the 1970s, and excavated a buried tableau beyond anyone’s expectations: dated to the first century BC, Cousteau found statues, jewelry, money, weapons — and several sets of barely recognizable human remains.
Decades later, we’re doing better with diving tech. The crew doing the underwater excavation is breathing something called “trimix,” which is a cocktail of helium, nitrogen, and oxygen better suited to spending time at depth. We’ve got pressure suits, too, and hyperbaric chambers if something should go wrong. We’re still sifting through the site and finding buried artifacts, but every detail we find raises more questions. The skeleton we just found is no exception. It isn’t the only human remains from the Antikythera wreck. It’s just the best preserved, by a long shot — well enough so that Hannes Schroeder and his team are going to try to get DNA out of it.
The jawbone. Image: Brett Seymour, EUA/WHOI/ARGO, via Nature News
The remains consist of a partial skull with teeth, two thighbones, two arm bones, and some ribs. “It doesn’t look like bone that’s 2,000 years old,” says Schroeder, an expert in ancient-DNA analysis who’s personally working on the DNA extraction. Because the skull is in such great condition, Schroeder can finesse DNA out of the dense bits of bone behind the ear called petrous bone; it preserves DNA better than other parts of the skeleton, even the teeth. “It’s amazing you guys found that,” Schroeder says of the partial skull. “If there’s any DNA, then from what we know, it’ll be there.”
DNA from the remains could add a valuable data point to our genetic history and the movement of haplogroups through time. Who was the person these remains came from? Would he (we think it’s a he) have looked “more Greek-Italian or Near Eastern”? How will the DNA we find inside them change our understanding of population movements through history? And why, after two thousand years underwater, are there still so many bones?
To the latter question, there exists an answer, even if it’s a little grim. The wreck site is positioned at the foot of Antikythera’s steep cliffs. The ship could have been caught in a storm and dashed against the rocks — just the kind of storm from which those divers originally tried to take shelter. Co-director of the excavation team Brandon Foley explains, “We think it was such a violent wrecking event, people got trapped below decks.” When the ship went down, the wreck was rapidly buried under the sand, and so too were the bodies.
Based on the richness of debris from the ship, and how they’re distributed, researchers think it was a large merchant ship with multiple decks, possibly toting spoils of war looted from Athens or Asia Minor. It could have been inbound as swag for a victory parade for Julius Caesar. In this era, Greek and Roman merchant ships often carried well-to-do passengers, or at least those who could pay, and sometimes slaves. British underwater archaeologist Mark Dunkley points out that a crew of a dozen or so chained-up slaves in the cargo hold would be SOL in a sinking ship. “The crew would be able to get off relatively fast. Those shackled would have no opportunity to escape.” The bones just uncovered were surrounded by pieces of corroded iron, still unidentified; the iron oxide has stained the bones amber red.
As for the device, scholars and tinkerers have been poring over the fragments of the Antikythera mechanism for years, analyzing its function and gearing. CAT scanning and repeated radiographs of the fragments have told us about its purpose: the Antikythera device was an orrery, a planetarium that would predict the diurnal movements of the sun and the five known planets. It had explicit, detailed instructions on the inside covers: you can just picture a hoary Grecian geometer yelling “RTFM!” The device could also predict eclipses, and — I’m not making this up — it had bloatware a built-in feature that could also give the dates of the Greek Olympic games, which happened every four years.
A device that complex, historians agree, probably wasn’t the work of a lone innovator. It was a masterwork, easily the most technologically advanced device we’ve recovered from antiquity. It could have been the work of Hipparchus, with his mentor and probably his apprentices. Scientists are using the markings on the device to suss out the latitude at which it was meant to be used.
Schematic of the whole Antikythera mechanism, with pins and gears labeled. Via Wikipedia
Naturally, there are some enterprising folks who have taken the data from existing studies of the device, often called the world’s first analog computer, and done reconstructions trying to find the answers. The artifact itself is on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, several people have done elegant working models, and there’s even a project to release CAD files for the device. But its gearing ratios present a problem: the device appears to have a “fast zone” and a “slow zone” where the gear teeth are differently spaced to account for the varying speed of the planets. The varying gear ratio could be the nuanced application of Greek geometrical theory to Babylonian astronomy, and in fact the Greeks were really into geometry at the time of the wreck, and the inscriptions inside the intricately geared device are thoroughly Babylonian. Or it could be sloppy craftsmanship that made some teeth larger than others. Forensic imaging is our best bet now.
Nobody knows who made the Antikythera device, nor how it came to be on the ship that sank. But if we can narrow down a few lineages, some information on who was where and when — if we can figure out who made it and why the gears are spaced the way they are — the DNA results from that partial skeleton stand to throw light on the whole affair. It’s amazing what you can find in the data.
Now read: How DNA sequencing works