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The Antikythera Shipwreck or The Secret Life of Statues

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You have probably heard of the Antikythera Mechanism, or the first computer of the world. If not let me shortly explain that in 1900 a group of sponge divers found an ancient (ca. 1st century BC) shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera. The shipwreck included many objects that were apparently being transported from Greece towards some city of the Roman Empire. It was usual for rich Romans to decorate their villas with looted Greek statues and other luxury goods.

What was particularly interesting among the found objects was a mechanism that included gear-wheels with teeth. Archaeologists could not decide what it was supposed to do until very recently, when they discovered with the help of advanced technological methods that this mechanism was calculating and predicting the exact position of the planets at any given time, including lunar and solar eclipses with minute precision. All this at a time when they could only observe the sky with bare eye! I am unable to scientifically explain how exactly this worked, however if you have not already, you should watch the BBC documentary about it (The Two Thousand Year Old Computer), which explains in a fascinating and accessible way how the mechanism worked and how they managed to find out about all that. The techie details are spectacular!

The Antikythera Shipwreck findings are currently exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. The whole exhibition is designed very beautifully; the visitor has often the feeling that he is underwater with the combination of sounds, light and the whole set-up of the different rooms. There are films explaining how the mechanism works (the 3D film is really worth watching), how the shipwreck was discovered by chance in 1900 and there is also film footage by the second underwater investigation in 1976 with the participation of Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his famous oceanographic ship Calypso.

The Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera Mechanism is spectacular as a concept; the idea that such a detailed astronomical calculator existed in 150 BC. The more you understand about it, the more astounded you are left. As an exhibit however it is not that big or eye-catching. What really impressed me in the exhibition as such was the collection of statues. I have never seen such a combination of beauty and horror all at once. The parts of the statues that were buried in the sea sediment have been left intact, their Parian marble shining with beauty and perfection. The parts that were exposed though are eroded in a way that creates such an uncanny feeling as if the statues had life. As if they were sick, lepers or even zombies at times, their flesh hanging from them half-rotten; a live metaphor of some forgotten Gods that creep slowly to infect your dreams with fears.

Hermes

Hermes

Hermes

Apollo

Achilles

Odysseus

Warrior

But even more impressive than the rotting Gods and mythic heroes was this young athlete, a boy, probably wrestling. I could not decide if he was smiling or struggling. If he was struggling I was not sure if it was because of his wrestling opponent or because of the sea monsters that have been eating his flesh. And if he was smiling, it was rather a haunting smile.

Boy wrestling

Boy wrestling

Boy wrestling

I had never seen anything like this before and the symbolism of decay put me into thoughts. What was hidden deep inside was protected and survived, like the feelings and thoughts we sometimes keep to ourselves. What was exposed was marred and deformed…

However, this did not happen to the bronze statues. The famous “Antikythera Youth” stares into the void, perpetuating the mystery of who he might be. There are many theories, the two most dominant being the hero Perseus, grasping in his right hand by the hair the head of the Gorgon Medusa, whom he just decapitated or the Trojan hero Paris, holding the Apple of Discord, which he offered to Aphrodite in exchange for Helen and thus instigated the Trojan War. I spent quite long practising with my hand the grip of an apple and that of a head. I don’t have experience in the second, but it still seemed to me more probable.

The Antikythera Youth

The Antikythera Youth

One of my favourite exhibits was “The Antikythera Philosopher”. The assumption is that he is a Cynic philosopher. Then I couldn’t help but notice the video that was playing directly opposite him, showing footage of the discovery of the shipwreck. Could the philosopher see himself being dug out of the past? And then, what a moment, the Philosopher was staring at himself…

The Antikythera Philosopher

The Antikythera Philosopher – Meeting his own gaze

The Antikythera Shipwreck exhibition will be at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens until April 2013.