As myth has it, Hercules had to complete 12 heroic labors to be absolved of guilt and to become immortal. A recent discovery picks up the story, long after the Greek and Roman tales concluded, to tell us a new version of his afterlife.
A likeness of the demigod of strength — who, the story goes, strangled a lion, decapitated a nine-headed underwater snake and captured a man-eating boar, among other feats — was lying at the bottom of the Aegean Sea. Or at least its head was.
A team of experts searching through a shipwreck off the coast of Greece, an excavation effort that took place from May 23 to June 15, dredged up what researchers believe is the marble head of a Hercules statue from ancient Rome dating back about 2,000 years.
The discoveries at the Antikythera shipwreck included parts of marble statues, human teeth and bronze and iron nails, said Lorenz E. Baumer, a professor of archaeology at the University of Geneva and one of the lead researchers on the project. This was the second excavation season of a five-year program, led by the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece, that aims to continue research at the site, which was first discovered in the early 1900s by Greek sponge divers.
“Two thousand years is a very long time, but when you’re thinking in generations — generations of 25 years — that gives 80 generations,” Baumer said. “That’s quite close.”
The connection to ancient civilization enthralls researchers, he added: “This is what is fascinating in archaeology. You get in direct contact with people.”
The discovery of the site was accidental. Antikythera is an island between mainland Greece and Crete, its name meaning “anti-Kythera,” or the opposite of a nearby island by that name. The Greek divers who found the shipwreck more than a century ago were harvesting sponges and initially thought that they had come across dead bodies at the bottom of the sea, but they later realized that they had found pieces of sculptures, Baumer said.
Since then, the Antikythera site has yielded items that have provided insight into ancient Roman history, economics, technology and art. Researchers speculate that a device that was previously discovered there, which was named after the island, may have been used for navigation and astronomy; it has even been called “the first computer” by some researchers.
Getting to those items has proved to be a herculean task.
Considered one of the richest shipwrecks, the Antikythera had been hidden under boulders that weighed as much as 8.5 tons and that were believed to have settled there during an earthquake sometime after the shipwreck — but soon enough after it to have helped preserve the artifacts. Ropes attached to pressurized air bags, like underwater balloons, were used to lift the rocks and expose parts of the wreckage that had been blocked off.
That was where the giant head believed to represent the mythical hero was hidden, as if felled by the curse of the jealous goddess Hera, who was said to have made his life difficult from birth.
The twice-life-size head is of a male bearded figure, and is covered by marine deposits that are being cleaned so that the piece can be restored. The head likely completes another ancient statue that was found in 1900, “Herakles of Antikythera,” which stands headless in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Baumer said. (Herakles, or Heracles, is the Greek name for Hercules.)
Four hours before divers came across the marble head, Baumer left the site to go back to Athens. He and a colleague stopped driving to look at pictures of the sculpture.
He celebrated not only the thrill of the discovery but also what it meant for research going forward. Knowing the underwater spot that the artifact was found gave explorers a better idea of the layout of the shipwreck, because earlier excavators hadn’t documented where they discovered the body of the statue, he said.
Experts are using 3D mapping to digitally document how the wreck looks before any artifacts are removed, said Elisa Costa, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Venice who is part of the effort. Her mapping captured each layer that was uncovered as the boulders were lifted, and she said she would continue to document the space around the site, which team members believe could help explain the wreck.
“It’s very exciting to be part of this important excavation project that started 120 years ago,” she said. “It’s really incredible.”
Swiss watchmaker Hublot created the balloon system that lifted the submerged boulders specifically for this project. For next year’s excavation, the company is designing robots that can do some of the work of scuba divers, Baumer said, freeing the human divers to do more of the analytical work.
Because of the depths they are exploring, divers can only spend 30 minutes near the wreck (after a 15-minute descent) before needing to slowly go back up for air. Water pressure puts five times more resistance on the divers’ movements than people experience on land, Baumer said. For safety, the divers never go down alone.
Each item excavated from the Antikythera shipwreck will be studied in an effort to piece together the story of the crew and the wreck, said Carlo Beltrame, an archaeology professor at the University of Venice. As a maritime archaeologist, he will use the discoveries to figure out the type of ship that sank and its likely route.
Part of his role is to study the social and economic conditions of the time, around 60 B.C. And he already has questions.
“Which type of ship was this?” Beltrame said. “What were the aspects of the traffic of the ship? Life aboard the ship?”
Details such as the size of the wooden planks used to build the ship have led Beltrame to posit that this was likely a large vessel, he said. Teeth found in the wreck this year could introduce researchers to the people who might have been on board. If bones or other human remains were found, they could help establish the gender and ages of the passengers and crew.
Brendan Foley, a former researcher at the site who is an archaeology professor at Lund University in Sweden, said there could be more life-size sculptures from the wreck, which he theorizes occurred around 65 B.C., when “this enormous ship crashed into the cliff and sank onto the steep slope.” He said he had predicted the existence of some of the latest archaeological treasures, including the head of “Herakles,” from other discoveries in 2017.
At the turn of the 20th century, divers found six bronze arms and a fragment of what came to be called the Antikythera mechanism. In 2017, they found a seventh arm and another piece of the tool, which they believe could have been used to track astronomical movements.
At the end of the project in 2025, the team aims to publish its findings on the “Return to Antikythera.” But they believe that there will still be more to find in the shipwreck. It is possible that, deep in the waters, more mythical beings wait for their stories to be told.