Archive for september, 2016


Human Skeleton Found on Famed Antikythera Shipwreck

Two-thousand-year-old bones could yield first DNA from an ancient shipwreck victim

Jo Marchant
19 September 2016

Divers examine human bones excavated from the Antikythera shipwreck (Brett Seymour, EUA/WHOI/ARGO).

Hannes Schroeder snaps on two pairs of blue latex gloves, then wipes his hands with a solution of bleach. In front of him is a large Tupperware box full of plastic bags that each contain sea water and a piece of red-stained bone. He lifts one out and inspects its contents as several archaeologists hover behind, waiting for his verdict. They’re hoping he can pull off a feat never attempted before — DNA analysis on someone who has been under the sea for 2,000 years.

Through the window, sunlight sparkles on cobalt water. The researchers are on the tiny Greek island of Antikythera, a 10-minute boat ride from the wreckage of a 2,000-year-old merchant ship. Discovered by sponge divers in 1900, the wreck was the first ever investigated by archaeologists. Its most famous bounty to date has been a surprisingly sophisticated clockwork device that modelled the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets in the sky — dubbed1 the ‘Antikythera mechanism’.

But on 31 August this year, investigators made another groundbreaking discovery: a human skeleton, buried under around half a metre of pottery sherds and sand. “We’re thrilled,” says Brendan Foley, an underwater archaeologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, and co-director of the excavations team. “We don’t know of anything else like it.”

A partial skull, with three teeth, is among the human remains found at the Antikythera wreck (Brett Seymour, EUA/WHOI/ARGO).

Within days of the find, Foley invited Schroeder, an expert in ancient-DNA analysis from the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, to assess whether genetic material might be extracted from the bones. On his way to Antikythera, Schroeder was doubtful. But as he removes the bones from their bags he is pleasantly surprised. The material is a little chalky, but overall looks well preserved. “It doesn’t look like bone that’s 2,000 years old,” he says. Then, sifting through several large pieces of skull, he finds both petrous bones — dense nuggets behind the ear that preserve DNA better than other parts of the skeleton or the teeth. “It’s amazing you guys found that,” Schroeder says. “If there’s any DNA, then from what we know, it’ll be there.”

Schroeder agrees to go ahead with DNA extraction when permission is granted by the Greek authorities. It would take about a week to find out whether the sample contains any DNA, he says: then perhaps a couple of months to sequence it and analyse the results.

For Schroeder, the discovery gives him the chance to push the boundaries of ancient-DNA studies. So far, most have been conducted on samples from cold climates such as northern Europe. “I’ve been trying to push the application of ancient DNA into environments where people don’t usually look for DNA,” he says. (He was part of a team that last year published the first Mediterranean ancient genome, of a Neolithic individual from Spain.)

Foley and the archaeologists, meanwhile, are elated by the chance to learn more about the people on board the first-century bc ship, which carried luxury items from the eastern Mediterranean, probably intended for wealthy buyers in Rome.

Rare discovery

The skeleton discovery is a rare find, agrees Mark Dunkley, an underwater archaeologist from the London-based heritage organization Historic England. Unless covered by sediment or otherwise protected, the bodies of shipwreck victims are usually swept away and decay, or are eaten by fish. Complete skeletons have been recovered from younger ships, such as the sixteenth-century English warship the Mary Rose and the seventeenth-century Vasa in Sweden. Both sank in mud, close to port. But “the farther you go back, the rarer it is”, says Dunkley.

Only a handful of examples of human remains have been found on ancient wrecks, says archaeologist Dimitris Kourkoumelis of the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, who collaborates with Foley. They include a skull found inside a Roman soldier’s helmet near Sardinia, and a skeleton reportedly discovered inside a sunken sarcophagus near the Greek island of Syrna (although the bones disappeared before the find could be confirmed).

Hannes Schroeder (left), project co-director Theotokis Theodoulou (centre) and Brendan Foley inspect the bones (Michael Tsimperopoulos, EUA/WHOI/ARGO).

In fact, the best-documented example is the Antikythera wreck itself: scattered bones were found by the French marine explorer Jacques Cousteau, who excavated here in 1976. Argyro Nafplioti, an osteoarchaeologist at the University of Cambridge, UK, concluded that the remains came from at least four individuals, including a young man, a woman and a teenager of unknown sex.

At the wreck site, only broken pots now remain on the sea floor — the sponge divers recovered all artefacts visible on the seabed in 1900–01. But Foley thinks that much of the ship’s cargo may be buried under the sediment. His team, including expert technical divers and members of the Greek archaeological service, relocated and mapped the 50-metre-deep site before beginning their own excavations in 2014. They have found items such as wine jars, glassware, two bronze spears from statues, gold jewellery and table jugs used by the crew (see ‘Ancient bounty’). The divers have also recovered ship components including enormous anchors and a teardrop-shaped lead weight, found in June, that may be the first known example of what ancient texts describe as a ‘war dolphin’ — a defensive weapon carried by merchant vessels to smash hostile ships.

Source: Stefan Williams, Australian Centre for Field Robotics; Alex Tourtas, EUA/WHOI/ARGO

The skeleton uncovered in August consists of a partial skull with three teeth, two arm bones, several rib pieces and two femurs, all apparently from the same person. Foley’s team plans further excavations to see whether more bones are still under the sand.

That so many individuals have been found at Antikythera — when most wrecks yield none — may be partly because few other wrecks have been as exhaustively investigated. But the researchers think it also reveals something about how the ship sank. This was a huge vessel for its time, perhaps more than 40 metres long, says Foley, with multiple decks and many people on board. The wreck is close to shore, at the foot of the island’s steep cliffs. He concludes that a storm smashed the ship against the rocks so that it broke up and sank before people had a chance to react. “We think it was such a violent wrecking event, people got trapped below decks.”

Mediterranean mystery

Diver Gemma Smith brings up bones from the Antikythera wreck. (Michael Tsimperopoulos, EUA/WHOI/ARGO)

The individuals found at Antikythera could be from the crew, which would probably have consisted of 15–20 people on a ship this size. Greek and Roman merchant ships also commonly carried passengers, and sometimes slaves. One reason people get trapped inside shipwrecks is if they are chained, points out Dunkley. “The crew would be able to get off relatively fast. Those shackled would have no opportunity to escape.” Intriguingly, the recently discovered bones were surrounded by corroded iron objects, so far unidentified; the iron oxide has stained the bones amber red.

Schroeder says that because ancient underwater remains are so rare, DNA analysis on such samples using state-of-the-art techniques has barely been tried. (Analyses were conducted on skeletons from the Mary Rose and the Vasa, but specialists no longer see those methods — based on amplifying DNA using a method called PCR — as reliable, because it is too difficult to distinguish ancient DNA from modern contamination.) Exceptions include analyses on 8,000-year-old wheat from a submerged site off the English coast (although these results have been questioned because the DNA did not show the expected age-related damage), and mitochondrial DNA from a 12,000-year-old skeleton found in a freshwater sinkhole in Mexico.

The surprisingly complex Antikythera mechanism modelled the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets (Anthony Ayiomamitis).

Finding undisturbed remains such as those at Antikythera is crucial because it offers the opportunity to extract any DNA in the best possible condition. Previously salvaged bones are not ideal for analysis because they have often been washed, treated with conservation mater­ials or kept in warm conditions (all of which can destroy fragile DNA), or handled in a way that contaminates them.

Schroeder guesses from the skeleton’s fairly robust femur and unworn teeth that the individual was a young man. As well as confirming the person’s gender, DNA from the Antikythera bones could provide information about characteristics from hair and eye colour to ancestry and geographic origin. In the past few years, modern genome sequences have revealed that genetic variation in populations mirrors geography, says Schroeder. He and others are now starting to look at how ancient individuals fit on that map, to reconstruct past population movements. Would the shipwreck victim look more Greek-Italian or Near Eastern, he wonders?

Over dinner, the researchers decide to nickname the bones’ owner Pamphilos, after a name found neatly scratched on a wine cup from the wreck. “Your mind starts spinning,” says Schroeder. “Who were those people who crossed the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago? Maybe one of them was the astronomer who owned the mechanism.”




On Not Knowing (Modern) Greek

Johanna Hanink

Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Not Knowing Greek” was published in 1925, the same year as Mrs Dalloway. The title gestures not to Woolf’s (nor to anyone’s) ignorance of Ancient Greek syntax, morphology and vocabulary, but to the impossibility of knowing today “how the words sounded, or where precisely we ought to laugh, or how the actors acted.” The essay is nevertheless an encomium of ancient Greek thought and literature, and, ironically, a testament to Woolf’s own fine command of the ancient language.

I think of it sometimes when I reflect on two frustrations I have about “not knowing” Modern Greek: a version of Greek in which you can, in fact, hear words, laugh on cue, and watch actors act. The first is with myself, because I wish I knew the language better. The second is with the field of Classics, for not institutionally valuing — and for even dismissing — any aspiring classicist’s efforts to learn it. After all, the thinking goes, those hours would be better spent on Homer and Thucydides (or even “German for Reading”: leave it to us to kill off a living language).

Classicists like equally to brag and complain that they have to learn a lot of languages. Most American PhD programs require exams in Ancient Greek, Latin, German, and either French or Italian: if you know either French or Italian, the thinking goes, you can fake your way through the other.

These languages are the tools of the trade, but they are also metonyms for the philological traditions that we are expected to put on a convincing show of knowing — with, say, the occasional name-check of Wilamowitz. Once you decide to get serious about the field, you learn to take these traditions for granted as the most inherently valuable. The history of European classical scholarship is entangled with the esteem that Greek and Latin have enjoyed in countries where German, French, Italian, or English is spoken. Many scholars who identify with the European classical tradition assume that any scholarship worth reading, or at least citing, will be in one of those four languages.

On the one hand, the modern language requirements of Classics PhD programs should really start to reflect that interesting and important things have been said and are being said about Greco-Roman antiquity in countless languages other than English, German, French, and Italian (why not accept Turkish or Arabic or Chinese — isn’t, after all, scholarship really just a form of “reception”?). On the other, the absence of Modern Greek from the list of discipline-approved languages is itself curious, and stranger still if you consider how classicists love to spend time, and to talk about spending time, in Greece.

Like fourteen European countries and two other former British colonies (Canada and Australia), the United States has a home base for its archeologists and classicists in Athens, at the American School of Classical Studies. It should go without saying that plenty of scholarship has been and continues to be written in Greek; Greek universities often have enormous Classics departments. There is simply more information in Greek about Greek archeological sites, both at the sites and in print. And for better or for worse Greek antiquity is more urgently present in national conversations (and at bookstores and on social media) in Greece than anywhere else.

So why does Modern Greek still not have a seat at the classicists’ table?

This is, bluntly put, largely because our discipline continues to take a colonialist view of, among other things, Greece, Greeks, and (Modern) Greek. Historians and anthropologists who work on Greece have been much more willing than classicists to acknowledge the country’s legacy of metaphorical colonization: not by the Ottomans, but by the early European antiquaries and travelers who planted their flags in the ruins of Greek antiquity.

At a time when European powers were scrambling to expand their empires, the travelers’ influential approach to the Ottoman-held “Classical Lands” was, as historian K.E. Fleming points out, “representative of a different form of colonialism, in which the history and ideology, rather than territory, of another country” is “claimed, invaded, and annexed.” Viewed through the lens of the present, the people who undertook this more “symbolic” colonization of Greece look a great deal like early versions of classicists.

Thanks to their proprietary attitude toward antiquity, they largely discounted local knowledge and described local people as apathetic to the ancient past whose ruins they seemed to live so blithely among (see here for evidence to the contrary). This kind of thinking was in turn used to justify, among other things, the removal of antiquities from Greece to countries where, supposedly, they would be better appreciated and cared for. All of this makes for a very long and complex story — one in which Greeks were hardly passive participants.

One of the story’s many legacies is that classicists trained in the “Western” classical tradition tend to disregard Modern Greek as a scholarly language, while Greeks who want to participate in the tradition — to have their voices and ideas heard abroad— earn degrees in other countries and publish their research in English, German, or French. Granting Modern Greek a more valued place in the professional conversation would be a positive step for a field that, on the point of colonialism, has a lot to answer for.

Beyond the political argument — and on the more personal, spiritual level that Woolf evokes in her own essay — the struggle to learn Modern Greek can bring a special kind of joy to those of us who first came to the language in its ancient form. That joy is the main reason I recommend that classicists spend at least a little time on Modern Greek, and ignore the gnawing voice that will say it’s a waste of time.

In a recent blog post (“What does the Latin actually say?”), Mary Beard makes an important point: for a lot of people it is hard for people to learn dead languages because we learn them passively. “It is both the plus and the minus of Latin,” she writes, “that we never have to ask for a pizza, or the way to the swimming pool, in it.”

My own learning style is certainly more “verbal” than “logical.” I like to talk, so I make much slower progress at learning dead languages passively than at learning living languages actively (my German is bad, but I could think of no greater waste of my own time than a “German for Reading” class). Modern Greek, of course, is not Ancient Greek: the linguistic politics here are particularly delicate and complex for historical reasons. The pronunciation can be a psychological barrier, and the language has changed since antiquity: classicists are often especially surprised to learn that infinitives have long since passed out of use. Greek also brims with borrowings from Turkish, Albanian, Italian, French, English…. But so what? Classicists’ own modern language requirements count Italian and French as substitutes for each other.

There’s no denying that having to decline Greek nouns when I order a pizza, or manipulate Greek verbs when I ask the way to the swimming pool, has brought even the ancient language to life for me. After years of studying Modern Greek, I have a far better recall for vocabulary, handle on verb forms, and instinctive sense for accentuation. The time I have dedicated to Modern Greek is some of the best I have spent as a classicist, since it has given me a sounder, more internalized sense of the ancient language (a better Sprachgefühl, as a more responsible classicist might say).

It’s fun, too, to learn how meanings of words have changed over time. For years ὁ φόρος was, in my mind, the tribute paid to Athens by its Delian League allies. Now the word just means “tax” (inasmuch as tax ever “just” means tax). Being αγαθός nowadays is not usually such a good thing. A στήλη can be a “column” in a newspaper (or on Eidolon). In chapter 4 of the Poetics, Aristotle observes just how much pleasure people take in learning and inferring: in looking at an image of someone and recognizing, “Oh, that’s him” (οὗτος ἐκεῖνος, 1448b). Making connections between two things — hearing a new word and realizing you already know it, just differently — sends a spark of joy through the brain. And anyway there is something to be said for a language that allows you to describe a tall, fit guy as a kouros in everyday conversation.

The twists and turns of Greek linguistic history also mean you can play specifically with avoiding Ancient Greek. Oftentimes there is a choice between describing something with a “high-register” word with ancient roots or a “low-register” vernacular or foreign word. Liver, for example, is συκώτι (derived, like Italian fegato and French foie, from a word for “fig”), but when the matter is a disease of the liver the more classicist-friendly ήπαρ is common. Speaking of liver, who would you buy it from: the κρεοπώλης or the χασάπης? The one features in beginning Ancient Greek textbooks; the other comes from Turkish. A Greek professor of Latin once told me that he revels in speaking English precisely because it offers similar opportunities to play with the nuance of register: between Anglo-Saxon, French and Latinate diction (to use a classic example, does Elizabeth II strike you as queenly, royal, or regal?).

The Facebook page Ancient Memes exploits the space between these levels by captioning “high-register” artworks with dialogue in very modern, “low-register” Greek. Reading things like Ancient Memes, or my few copies of “Aristophanes in Comics,” has introduced new playfulness into my approach to Ancient Greek. And play, of course, is one of ways we learn best.

So what is still keeping many classicists (again, leaving the more political argument aside) from seizing the real practical benefits that Modern Greek has to offer: the opportunity to spend time in Greece more comfortably, the chance to collaborate with Greek colleagues more substantively, the opportunity to bolster our grasp of the language and its extremely longue durée, and to procrastinate by laughing at Ancient Memes?

When I posed a version of the question to a professor in Thessaloniki, he had a good answer. Classicists, he suggested, are easily embarrassed and afraid to make mistakes. Making mistakes is crucial for language acquisition, and sometimes the mistakes will be horribly embarrassing ones (I have, in polite conversation, said τσιμπούκι when I meant τσιμπούρι). Once, after I paid for books at a bookstore in Greece, I overheard the woman who had just rung me out ask a colleague with genuine bewilderment: “What does she want with an Ancient Greek book if she can’t even speak Greek?” In a field that already demands so much posturing, so much pretense of knowing Greek and Latin, risking mistakes and “not knowing” means risking a lot of your ego.

But it’s worth it. Learning Modern Greek, at least to the extent that I have managed to learn it, has made both my life and my relationship with my work all the richer. I haven’t even mentioned the unique pleasure that modern Greek literature offers the classicist. That sheer enjoyment aside, few people have been more influential in shaping modern views of Greek antiquity than George Seferis, or have problematized the periodization of Greek poetry more than Constantine Cavafy (translated into English most recently by critic and classicist Daniel Mendelsohn). I first came to Modern Greek after reading Seferis’ essay “Delphi” (Greek here), but since then have actually come to prefer paddling around in Greek literature’s less classical waters.

Nevertheless, since I’m teaching ancient Greek mythology again this semester, the text I’m most excited about right now is Auguste Corteau’s Νεολληνική Μυθολογία. It is a parodic re-imagining of ancient Greek myths: on one page, Erebus makes a move on his sister Nyx: “Hush you idiot,” she replies, “Mom’ll hear and call Social Services.” Later, Kronos appears on the beach and informs his father he’s come to play paddle ball. “But I don’t see any balls,” says Ouranos. “Nor will you ever again,” says Kronos.

Now, with the prospect of a long plane ride ahead of me, I’m looking forward to having a few quiet hours with the book — no matter how much of it I manage to understand, or how often I know when I ought to laugh.

Interested in learning Modern Greek? The homepage of the Modern Greek Studies Association has plenty of information and resources.

This article is part of a bimonthly column, Disciplinary Action, in which Johanna Hanink will address the politics of the Classics field.

Johanna Hanink is Associate Professor of Classics at Brown University. Her new book The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity is forthcoming from Harvard University Press in spring (it began life as this Eidolon article last summer). You can hear her chat about ancient Athens and the concept of cultural decline on Richard Flower’s Distant Pasts podcast.

Special thanks to Yung In Chae, Konstantinos Poulis, and Donna Zuckerberg.