Trea­sure of the Aegean Sea

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhu Jiant­ing, Li Li Edited by David Ball, Justin Davis Pho­tos by Qu Bowei

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.

Ex­quis­ite De­tails

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

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