Legend has it that Hercules had to complete 12 heroic labors to be absolved of guilt and become immortal. A recent discovery picks up the story long after the point at which accounts of Greek and Roman antiquity concluded, to tell us a new version of his afterlife.
A statue of the demigod of strength — who, according to mythology, would have strangled a lion, decapitated a nine-headed underwater serpent and captured a man-eating boar, among other feats — was lying on the bed of the Aegean Sea. Or his head, at least, it was.
A team of experts that examined the remains of a shipwreck off the coast of Greece, in an archaeological excavation work carried out between May 23 and June 15, has recovered what researchers believe is the marble head of a statue of Hercules from Roman antiquity, from about 2,000 years ago.
Discoveries made at the Antikythera wreck site included parts of marble statues, human teeth and bronze and iron nails, said Lorenz E. Baumer, a professor of archeology at the University of Geneva and one of the lead researchers on the project. It was the second excavation season of a five-year program led by the Swiss School of Archeology in Greece, which aims to advance research at the site discovered in the early 20th century by Greek divers looking for sponges.
“Two thousand years is a very long time, but if you think in terms of generations of 25 years each, that’s 80 generations,” Baumer said. “That’s close.”
According to him, the link with an ancient civilization fascinates researchers: “That’s what’s so fascinating about archaeology. You come into direct contact with people.”
The discovery of the site was accidental. Antikythera is an island located between mainland Greece and Crete; its name alludes to its location, south of the island of Kythera. The Greek divers who found the wreck more than a century ago were scavenging for sponges and initially thought they had found human remains at the bottom of the sea. But, according to Baumer, they later realized that they had discovered pieces of sculpture.
Since then the Antikythera site has yielded objects that provide insight into the history, economy, technology and art of Roman antiquity. Researchers speculate that an artifact previously discovered at the site and named after the island may have been used for navigation and astronomical calculations; it has even been described by some researchers as the “first computer”.
Getting to these objects has been a Herculean task.
Seen as one of the biggest finds of its kind, the shipwreck at Antikythera was hidden under massive boulders weighing up to 8.5 tons each and which would have settled there during an earthquake that occurred sometime after the sinking but not long afterward. so much so that they helped preserve the artifacts. Ropes attached to pockets of pressurized air, such as underwater balloons, were used to lift the rocks and expose parts of the previously blocked wreckage.
Hidden there was the giant head believed to represent the mythical hero, as if he had been struck down by the curse of the jealous goddess Hera, which would have made Hercules’ life difficult since he was born.
At twice the life size of a human head, the head is that of a bearded male figure and is covered with marine deposits that are being removed to allow for restoration of the artifact. According to Baumer, the head is likely to complete another ancient statue, this one found in 1900, “Heracles of Antikythera”, which is headless in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. (Heracles is the Greek name for Hercules.)
Four hours before the divers found the marble head, Baumer left the site to return to Athens. He and a colleague stopped the car to look at images of the sculpture.
Baumer was thrilled not only with the excitement of the discovery, but with its importance for future research. Knowing the location of the spot where the artifact was found gives explorers a better idea of the layout of the ship’s wreckage, because, according to Baumer, previous excavators have not documented where they discovered the statue’s body.
“Experts are using 3D mapping to digitally document the appearance of the wreckage before any artifacts are removed,” said Elisa Costa, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Venice who is participating in the research. Her mapping captured each layer that was uncovered as the rocks were lifted, and she said she will continue to document the space around the site, which members of her team believe can help shed light on the wreck.
“It is tremendously exciting to be a part of this important excavation project that started 120 years ago,” said Costa. “It’s really amazing.”
Swiss watch manufacturer Hublot created the balloon system that lifted the submerged rocks specifically for this project. For the 2023 excavation, the company is creating robots that could do some of the divers’ work, Baumer said, leaving human divers free to do more analytical work.
Due to the depth at which they explore, divers can only spend 30 minutes near the wreck (after a descent that takes 15 minutes), before having to slowly ascend again for air. Baumer explained that water pressure imposes five times more resistance on divers’ movements than people feel on land. As a safety measure, divers never dive alone.
“Each object taken from the Antikythera shipwreck will be studied in an effort to reconstruct the history of the crew and the vessel,” said Carlo Beltrame, professor of archeology at the University of Venice. As a maritime archaeologist, he will use the findings to calculate the type of ship that sank and its likely course.
Part of his role is to study the social and economic conditions of the time, around 60 BC. And he already has questions to ask.
“What kind of vessel was it?” said Beltrame. “What were the aspects of her traffic? What was life on board her like?”
Details such as the size of the wooden planks used to build the ship led Beltrame to postulate that it was likely a large vessel. Teeth found amid the wreckage could introduce researchers to people who would have been on the ship. If bones or other human remains have been found, they can help determine the gender and ages of passengers and crew.
Brendan Foley is a professor of archeology at Lund University in Sweden and a former researcher at the Antikythera site. He said it is possible that there are more life-size sculptures among the wreckage and calculates that the sinking took place around 65 BC, “when this huge ship would have crashed into the cliff and sunk over the steep slope”. Foley said he predicted the existence of some of the most recently discovered archaeological treasures, including the head of “Heracles”, from other discoveries made in 2017.
At the turn of the 20th century, divers found six bronze hands and a fragment of what would come to be known as the Antikythera mechanism. In 2017 they found a seventh pointer and another piece of the mechanism, which they believe may have been used to calculate astronomical motions.
At the end of the project, in 2025, the researchers intend to publish their findings in “Return to Antikythera”. But they believe there will still be more objects to be found on the wreck. It is possible that more mythical beings lurking in the sea depths are still waiting for their stories to be told.
Translation by Clara Allain.