Extraordinarily Well-Preserved Skeleton Found at Famed Antikythera Shipwreck

It started with one bone, a forearm poking up from the muck in the waters between Crete and the Greek peninsula of Peloponnese.

Ultimately, archaeologists discovered another arm bone, two femurs, a partial skull with three teeth, and fragments of rib bones, the remains of a sailor or passenger who was swiftly buried in an underwater landslide after his or her ship sank more than 2,000 years ago. A remarkable discovery on its own, it’s perhaps more notable because of what the ship was carrying: a trove of ancient jewelry, statues, glassware, weapons, and the famed Antikythera mechanism, an ancient computer that precisely calculated the position of the heavens.

antikythera-skeleton-excavation
Archaeologists Brendan Foley, Theotokis Theodoulou, and Alex Tourtas excavate the Antikythera Shipwreck skeletal remains, assisted by Nikolas Giannoulakis and Gemma Smith.

The skeleton is remarkably complete considering it was discovered in a ancient shipwreck. In most cases, remains are swept away by the currents or snapped up by fish and other organisms. This ship, though, slid down an undersea cliff, and when finally settled on the bottom, it was quickly buried by a landslide of its own creation. The ocean muck encased the bones and preserved them for over 2,000 years.

Other bones have been discovered from the Antikythera wreck, but none recently, and certainly none when archaeologists had the tools of genetics available to them. The team, co-led by Brendan Foley from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has yet to sample the bones for DNA, but they expect that if any is present, it’ll be in the dense skull bone from behind the ear.

Here’s Jo Marchant, reporting for Nature:

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.

Based on the features of the skull—its plates aren’t fully fuzed—and the condition of its teeth—they’re not terribly worn—archaeologists suspect the individual was in his or her late teens or early 20s.

If scientists are able to successfully retrieve DNA from the bones, they’ll be able to determine the person’s sex, ancestry, and place of origin. Those clues could offer more than just a picture of the person—they could also offer a snapshot of life at sea in Ancient Roman times.

Watch "Ancient Computer" to discover more about the Antikythera device found in the wreck.