Returning to the Fatal Shipwreck of the World's Oldest Computer - Atlas Obscura
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Returning to the Fatal Shipwreck of the World’s Oldest Computer


WHOI Diving Safety Officer Edward O’Brien “spacewalks” in Exosuit, suspended from the Hellenic Navy vessel THETIS during the 2014 Return to Antikythera project. (photograph by Brett Seymour, courtesy Return to Antikythera 2014)

In 1900 some sponge divers off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera stumbled upon what would turn out to be the richest and largest ancient shipwreck ever discovered. Over the next two years a great number of ancient artifacts were recovered from the site — coins, bronze and metal statues, glasswork, and a very corroded bronze device called the Antikythera mechanism, used to calculate astronomical positions, that is considered the world’s oldest analog computer.

The Antikythera mechanism (photograph by Marsyas/Wikimedia)

Then a few divers died, and the shipwreck, which is 55 meters deep and covers 300 meters of the seafloor, was deemed too dangerous for continued exploration. Decades later, in 1976, Jacques Cousteau brought a team back down, and over 27 days they were able to recover hundreds more ancient objects. No one else has investigated the wreck since — until now. 

Last month a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution headed back under, equipped with a one-of-a-kind diving system called the Exosuit. The suit is made of aluminum alloy and weighs 530 pounds — but more importantly, it allows divers to stay underwater for up to 50 hours, is safe at depths of 1,000 feet, and does not require decompression on the way back up. (Here’s Atlas Obscura’s previous coverage of the Exosuit.)


A prototype of the Exosuit (courtesy Nuytco Research, Ltd)

The dive has been a great success so far. The team created a 3D map of the wreck site to determine where to find more buried treasures, and they have already located parts of the ship, pieces of furniture, and a spear so big it is assumed to have been part of a massive statue. The size of the ships components recovered also indicate that it was far larger than previously believed — one of the researchers has called it ”the Titanic of the ancient world.” One theory is that the vessel’s cache of luxurious goods made up the dowry of a soon-to-be married woman aboard the ship.

Greek technical diver Alexandros Sotiriou discovers an intact “lagynos” ceramic table jug and a bronze rigging ring on the Antikythera Shipwreck. (photograph by Brett Seymour, courtesy Return to Antikythera 2014)

Statue recovered in 1901, now on display in the Athens National Museum (photograph by Dimitris Agelakis/Flickr)