Treasure of the Aegean Sea
The azure Aegean Sea was the cradle of the ancient Greek civilisation. Several thousand years ago, people plied their trades and worked to achieve their dreams in these charming waters. For that reason, the ancient shipwrecks here conceal mysteries of these long- gone civilisations.
The azure Aegean Sea was the cradle of the ancient Greek civilisation.
Several thousand years ago, people plied their trades and worked to achieve their dreams in these charming waters. For that reason, the ancient shipwrecks here conceal mysteries of these long-gone civilisations.
The mysterious region has also proved to be an inspiring place for numerous writers and directors whose works have opened a series of windows into ancient Greek, and even European, culture.
The cultural relics on display in the Antikythera Shipwreck exhibition in Beijing come from a wreck discovered off of a Greek island. The ship sank at the west edge of the Aegean Sea during the first century BC and was not discovered and salvaged until the early 20th century. Asleep on the seabed 50 metres beneath the waves for over 2,000 years, the wreck and the artefacts inside had suffered badly from erosion. However, the remaining deck, pottery, weapons, musical instruments, human bones, marble and bronze statues, jewellery, silverware and glass vessels showcase the shipbuilding, navigation, sculpting, craftsmanship, luxurious lifestyle and other aspects of interactions between ancient Greece and Rome.
Boasting about 350 rare cultural relics from Greece, the Antikythera Shipwreck exhibition is on show at the Palace Museum and will run until December 16. “The simple pots, broken statues and decayed ship components might seem ordinary at first,” said Shan Jixiang, director of the Palace Museum, “But they can offer us fascinating knowledge and possess a penetrating and touching artistic beauty.”
Entering the Historical Wreck
The unfortunate sinking, which took place near the Greek island of Antikythera, offers us an opportunity to see the maritime trade between the ambitious Hellenic east and the Roman Republic. The shipwreck took place around 30–50 BC when maritime navigation and the transport of artistic goods between Greece and Italy were booming. At that time, war trophies from Rome's eastward expansion were often shipped back to the Roman Republic and displayed in the homes of illustrious generals.
Aristocrats, merchants and upper- class people in the Gulf of Naples, Etruria, Latium and Sicily lived in luxury urban, rural or seaside residences and enjoyed a high quality of life. Documents indicate that the decoration of Hellenic palaces, temples and academies was one way to demonstrate one's dignity and wealth. As such, marble and bronze sculptures for use in decorating villas were steadily shipped to these Mediterranean homes.
It is possible that the ship wrecked off Antikythera was transporting artworks for the Romans. The exhibition hall imitates the underwater scene with pots, vases and sculptures lying on the white sand in the blue ocean.
The shipwreck, of which only a
limited part of the hull remains, was clearly a cargo ship with an estimated load capacity of 300 tons. A plank from the base of the surviving part of the hull is heavily dotted with nails of various sizes. Beside the plank are several long bronze spikes which were used to fix the hull, keel or mast and are collected in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Unfortunately, these sturdy materials were destined to become part of the wrecked ship which never reached its destination.
Some components of the stern and bow have not been identified. However, it is possible to see that the ship's hull was built using single-tier planks according to the method of building the hull first.
Shipbuilders first built the keel, then installed the sternposts and next planked the sides in an arc shape. Each plank had a tenon on either end to allow it to be fixed in place. After fixing, more holes were drilled for treenails. Once the hull- building process reached a certain point, the frame was inserted into the complete structure. To connect the frame and planks, first, holes were drilled in the planks and the frame, treenails were then inserted and finally bronze spikes were hammered from the outside of the planks to hold these treenails in place.
The wedges and tenons found in the wreck were made of oak. The planks of elm and the hull beneath the waterline were coated with thin sheets of lead. Corinthian tiles indicate that the deck as partially covered by a roof, possibly for sheltering the wooden door to a cabin. Exhaust pumps, balance weights, fishnet plumbs and dip weight for depth measurement and seabed exploration were also discovered and are on display at the museum.
This kind of shipbuilding technique, as well as similar methods, was widely used in the Eastern Mediterranean during the late Bronze Age. This continued until the period from AD 500–1000, when the method of building the frame first gradually became more commonplace, and is still used to this day.
Life on the Water
During long journeys across the vast oceans, life onboard a ship could still be colourful.
Archaeologists discovered human remains amid the wreck. Using bone mineral density measurement, a 20–25 year-old male, a female of a similar age and a 15-year-old child were all identified. The victims were possibly passengers on the cargo ship as there were no specialised passenger ships at that time.
Olives and snails discovered in the wreck were presumably part of the sailors' daily diet. They also ate salted meat and fish whilst not forgetting about their intake of necessary nutrients. A basin-shaped container was used for grinding up seeds, vegetables and herbs, and a stone mill was used to manually husk grains. A pot uncovered with the wreck still has burn marks and was obviously used on a daily basis. Plus, a Megarian bowl still has its owner's name engraved on it.
People tried their best to maintain their comfortable and leisurely life aboard ship through various articles. Ceramic and metal lamps provided light; wine was stored in large urns, with smaller ones used as drinking vessels. A handled vase and eared mug have resin traces inside, indicating they were used for mixing drinks. Chess pieces found in the wreck were probably used to kill time during sea journeys.
A floating ship really is like a selfcontained world out at sea.
Discovering Bronze Statues
Today, only the head, hands, sandaled feet and two fragments of robes remain of the cast bronze statue known as “The Philosopher.” In the reconstruction, the Philosopher is depicted standing with both feet firmly planted on the ground, wearing a garment similar to a toga that covers most of his body down to the knees and is folded over his left shoulder. He is holding a staff in his left hand, while his right arm, bent at the elbow, is extended in a gesture characteristic of orators. The statue is a depiction of an old bearded man, whose individual features are realistically portrayed. His hair is curly and messy, his nose is long and broad, and his thin lips are hidden beneath his thick moustache. His small eyes, raised bushy eyebrows and deep forehead wrinkles lend the face a distinct expressiveness and liveliness.
The unkempt appearance of the figure recalls that of a Cynic philosopher. Recognisable elements of the early
baroque are detectable in the work and suggest it dates from around 230 BC or shortly thereafter. Fragments of arms from other similarly-sized bronze statues, in comparable gestures and with identical leather sandals, have led to the conclusion that these were a group of statues that would have been erected outdoors in public.
A series of neoclassical bronze statues in various gestures are also exhibited, such as the “Antikythera Youth,” an athlete offering wine, and a boxer. The boxer is represented with legs slightly bent and apart, his hands wrapped in leather. The positioning of his arms and the turning of his head may echo the moment shortly before the start of the match, or when training with a punching-bag. In addition to the exquisite representation of movement, the statues are also extremely well-made. The eyeballs of the athlete offering wine are possibly made of alabaster.
The neoclassical bronze statues, with their smooth backs and similar haircuts, are believed to come from the same studio or even the same sculptor. More importantly, however, they are not simply reproductions of specific classic images but the absorption of sculptural elements prevailing in the 4th and 5th centuries BC. In actual fact, these statues were made in the 2nd century BC, but their creator chose to use a past style.
Enjoying a Life of Luxury
From the late 3rd century BC, Roman generals would plunder Greek artworks to decorate the temples and public places of Rome as displays of their military exploits. Prior to the 1st century BC, people were used to decorating their residences with stolen or purchased Greek artworks. With the help of local agencies, some Romans began providing paintings, columns, column bases and caps, statues, reliefs, busts and bronze beds from Greece for the upper classes. Historical documents and underwater wrecks show that these products were first produced or distributed in Greek hubs such as Athens, Piraeus, Delos and Rhodes, then shipped to Italy to decorate the buyers' residences.
Underwater archaeological surveys made in 1990–91 and 1996 uncovered parts of a sofa bed, the type of which was prevalent in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. The wooden frame and copper sections of the sofa bed have also made their way to the Palace Museum from afar. From the pillow's brace, fragments of the frame and the foot of the bed base, one can find clues to the historical luxury that once existed.
The decorative cast bronze items were tightly affixed to the wooden frame. The decorative sections on the pillow sides are exquisitely made: on top is a bust of a noble lion and at the bottom is a simple, plain relief. The lower sections of the wooden legs have been lathed and are decorated with bronze parts in various patterns.
There were at least three of these sofa beds onboard the wrecked ship. It is possible that they were custom-made in mills on Delos and were on their way to Rome, which was their main market. They would have eventually been placed in private or public buildings to showcase the luxurious life of the Romans.
Next to the sofa bed components is a set of glassware which is brightly coloured and exquisitely made.
Not showing any traces of use, the glassware is believed to have been commercial goods carried by the ship. They were salvaged from deep water and miraculously still intact.
These glass items represent the most famous glassware processing techniques in ancient Greece. The monochromatic and chromatic glassware are samples of the SyrianPalestinian style and are the earliest reliable evidence of the glass trade between east and west. Similar glassware has also been discovered during excavations in Delos.
One glass bowl on display is particularly impressive. Two olive branches with leaves emerge from the mouth of a stylised vase and extend over the entire surface to the back of the bowl, where they meet, nearly touching one another. On the rounded bottom is a simple, eight-petalled rosette. The light olive green makes it appear pure and exquisite. A glass lobed bowl on show is the largest of the glass vessels discovered on the Antikythera shipwreck. Its body is decorated with sixteen lanceolate leaves with central veins alternating between sixteen projecting lobes. On the circular base is an eight-petalled rosette. Other glass vessels, such as a cone-shaped glass bowl with trench pattern, mosaic glass bowl, mosaic-striped glass bowl, alabaster glass and glass skyphos, show the incredible workmanship and extraordinarily production techniques of the craftsmen.
Luxury articles including bronze tins and handles, dolphin-carved seals, cone-shaped silver cups, gold earrings
and rings are also on display. Greek artworks once flooded into Rome, laying a noble foundation for everything Hellenic amongst the Romans. The nobleness not only refers to having the best architecture, garments and things but also exotic goods and slaves.
Originally, the ship that sank in the waters near the island of Antikythera was on its way to Italy. Apart from the valuable goods, there were also many pottery items onboard. Most were plates and cups of various sizes which were coated with dark red or orange glaze, and decorated with patterns including circles and reed leaves.
Pottery was produced in the late Hellenic period on a huge scale and was highly standardised, reaching its heyday in the middle of the 1st century BC around the time the ship sank in the Antikythera waters. The red- glazed pottery was possibly made in the Syria- Palestine region and is believed to have cost something similar to the price of rare metal utensils. These works are comparable with the red tableware mentioned by Roman orator and statesman Cicero ( 106– 43 BC) or the red pottery used by the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra ( 69– 30 BC). Had the ship not sunk, they would most likely have been used by Roman aristocrats.
Exploring the World of Science
Many artefacts have been recovered from the Antikythera wreck such as the earliest known analogue computer with its gears and clockwork mechanism. It is known as the Antikythera mechanism. Thorough studies have been conducted. The mechanism was first considered an astronomical instrument, a navigation device or a combination of different devices when it was found.
Today people have concluded that it was not an astrolabe or a planetarium but is the oldest known astronomical calculator. The components of this device are engraved with inscriptions of astronomical terms like "sun," "ray" and "Hesperus," as well as numbers and codes associated with various astronomical cycles, numbers representing the Metonic cycle of the moon and numbers representing the Saros cycle, which indicates the periodicity of eclipses.
It was a sophisticated astronomical instrument in its time. Recent research has revealed how the Antikythera mechanism calculates and displays movements of the moon.
People wonder if other, similar devices exist. It is almost certain that more were made in ancient times but did not survive. Bronze was very valuable at the time. Bronze items could be recycled and used for other purposes when they were discarded. This could be one fate of these mechanisms.
The device features many gears, the concept of which probably originated from Aristotle at the time. Archimedes Orrery's ideas are in alignment with the way that the Antikythera mechanism functions as well.
Poseidonius (c. 135–51 BC) lived on Rhodes Island in the first half of the first century BC. He is considered to be the designer of the Antikythera mechanism. Hipparchus (c. 190–120 BC) and Poseidonius were active on the island at the time. It was speculated that Rhodes Island might be the birthplace of the device. The Metonic calendar and names of the months on the device were related to Corinth or one of its colonies, however.
The exhibition features a number of models and astrolabes. Riddles are hidden in their precise structures, waiting to be discovered and solved by later generations.
A damaged marble sculpture on display
A mosaic glass bowl with stripes
A bronze statue
A model of the Antikythera mechanism
A glass bowl