A Day in the life of…An Underwater Archaeologist
By Gemma Smith
The sport of diving always reminds me of an oak tree: there is the main trunk from which everything else grows, but there are also hundreds of branches reaching out in all directions, eager to be independent and different. This is exactly how diving is! From the main interest we all have in our underwater world there are a never-ending variety of new branches to go off and explore, and something new to learn, enthuse or inspire everyone, regardless of age, gender, or experience. I don’t think it is possible for anyone to ever be bored as a diver! In this series I want to explore some of the many possible careers and paths available to those of us lucky enough to have access to the many oceans, lakes, rivers and waterways on our planet, and in this first article I take a closer look into the life of an underwater archaeologist, and in particular the day to day workings of the Antikythera Project.
The world’s first computer
For well over a hundred years the tiny Greek island of Antikythera, lying far below the mainland Greek Peloponnese and northwest of Crete, has been known to be home to arguably one of the most influential and intriguing underwater archeological sites in the world. It was first discovered in the 1900’s by sponge fishermen from the Greek island of Symi, who having been forced to take shelter from a storm on their way back from their summer fishing grounds in Tunisia decided to try their luck while they waited out the bad weather, and see whether they could add to their haul of sponges. Using the standard dress of the day – canvas suit, heavy copper helmet, and an unwieldy umbilical hose that delivered air to the divers, as well as being their only connection to the daylight above them – the story goes that Elias Stadiatis was the first to descend. Minutes later he came frantically to the surface, speaking of seeing ‘dead bodies, littering the sea floor. Dead bodies everywhere!’. These ‘dead bodies’ would turn out to be a huge collection of exquisite bronze and marble statues, relics from a shipwrecked thousand of years previously, and their discovery would mark the beginning of some of the most extraordinary finds of the century.
Of course, despite the incredible beauty of the statues found and recovered, the Antikythera wreck is without a doubt best known for a device which has come to be known as both the ‘Antikythera Mechanism’ and ‘the worlds oldest computer’. Complex interlocking bronze cogs and wheels, cut with extreme precision and marked with scales and inscriptions were and still are, unlike anything ever discovered. Even more extraordinary is the age of this device. To think that this was made by the Ancient Greeks over 2000 years ago puts it utterly ahead of its time. Up until the 1900’s, there had never been another accurate scale, or any cogwheels, found from that long ago era. Opinion is still divided as to its exact use, but it is nowadays thought by experts to predict the movement of the sun, moon, and planets, as well as showing eclipses and the cycles of the ancient Olympic Games.
An archaeological wonder
The wreck site and what other mysteries may be there has continued to intrigue and fascinate people in the decades since its discovery. The legendary diving pioneers Jaques Cousteau and Frederic Dumas made expeditions to the site in both 1952 and 1976. And although no further pieces of the Antikythera Mechanism were uncovered, they were able to add to the impressive haul of treasure already recovered from the wreck. Particularly lovely was the discovery of two delicate bronze statuettes on rotating bases, one a boxer and one a slender young man. Despite these amazing finds and the obvious potential for more, it would be many years before another archeological team would return to this site.
In 2012 a marine archeologist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts was granted permission by the Greek government to once again start excavations on the wreck. Alongside fellow Greek archeologists from the Greek Ephorate of Antiquities, a joint project was undertaken to set about finding out what other secrets this wreck site may be hiding. This would be an underwater archaeological excavation unlike any seen before in Greece.
Our team descends onto this small island from all corners of the earth. America, Sweden, United Kingdom, various parts of Greece, we have all traveled some considerable distance to arrive here on this ‘rock’ situation where the Aegean connects with the Mediterranean Sea. As with any remote project we have brought *everything* we could possibly need, and despite the enthusiasm and keenness, we all share to get in the water and start excavating on this site, several days of set-up are needed before we are able to get to that stage. While beautiful, Antikythera is very remote and with few facilities. Not only is all equipment related to diving shipped in, the day to day essentials are also required. As well as all cylinders, dive equipment, blending systems, J bottles filled with a month’s worth of oxygen and helium, all archaeological equipment including underwater metal detectors and sample boxes, we also bring in a large quantity of food, a refrigerator, pots, and pans for cooking, portable fans (there is no air-conditioning sadly, which is somewhat challenging in Greece in the summer!) and mosquito nets, to name just a small sample of what is needed. It is a monumental team effort to transport all the equipment from the ferry onto various cars and trucks which are then driven up to ‘Hotel Kalkonakis’ at the top of a very steep hill. Now the hard work really begins. Our ‘home’ for the next month is a small serious of rooms overlooking Potamos Harbour. With no air conditioning, windows, or modern amenities it is basic but functional. With the passion we all have for underwater archaeology I think we would have happily camped out in tents, if only for the opportunity to work on this site! Rooms are cleaned, the kitchen is set up, and our custom blending station is created as if by magic in a nearby shed. Within a few days, our lodgings have been turned into a perfect facility to fulfill all the wants and need of the underwater archaeologist.
Logistics and set-up
The alarm goes off bright and early at 5:30. Breakfast starts at 6am, and although staying in bed that extra half hour is so enticing, the smell of freshly baked eggs and bacon is already wafting through the room, prepared by our Cretan chef, who has the mammoth task of keeping well-fed a 20-odd person group of always hungry commercial divers! The first day of diving on this project is always a setup day. To protect the location of the site and prevent illegal excavations of artifices, at the end of every season spent working here all traces of our diving operations are removed. Before excavation can begin the dive site has to be set up, involving the placement of buoys, deco lines, and spare cylinders of deco gas at various stages in the ascent. Safety comes first, always. Part of the challenge of working on this site is the depth. With excavations ranging down a slope from 40m to 60m, bottom time is limited. For this reason the team made the decision to switch all members to CCR. Not only does this greatly extend our allowable time actually spent working at depth, but from a logistical point of view when working in a remote location it greatly reduces the amount of gas that needs to be blended on a daily basis. The second logistical problem we have is the remoteness of the site; we are many miles and hours from any kind of medical facility. The nearest recompression chamber is in Athens, and in order to guarantee that any diver suffering from possible decompression issue is treated as swiftly as possible, a working timeline of being out the water by 2pm every day is implemented. This allows a medical helicopter to fly from Athens to Antikythera and back again, within the operational hours of flying. While slack water isn’t an issue here, the clock seems to tick very fast towards 2pm every day, and we are all keen to spend as much time in the water as is safely possible.
A typical dive day
With our limited timeframe to be in the water, our days always start early. Alarm, coffee, and gear set up in the cool of the early morning is underway long before most other people would be up and about. All gas blending is done the day before, so this is the time to fill canisters, analyse and label oxygen and diligent bottles, and run through a full set of pre-checks on our CCRs. Drysuits left to air dry in the hot Greek climate are rolled up, and undersuits and accessory gear is packed away. Breakfast is eaten, and then all dive gear is loaded into vans to be transported back down the hill to the harbour where our two dive boats wait. It’s surprising the workout you get loading and unloading rebreathers and bailouts on and off vans and boats several times a day! Once all gear is safely secured on the boat it is time for the team briefing. One of the biggest constraints as an underwater archaeologist is the time. While those working on a land dig can spend many hours each day at work, we are limited to between 45 and 90 minutes of useable working bottom time, with the remainder of the dive spent decompressing up the slope. It’s therefore important that there is a thorough and thought out plan in place for every dive we do, to maximise possible results. With the plan finalised by the chief archaeologist and the dive safety officer, a final check of gear is done, and then the boat engine is started. We can barely contain our excitement to get in the water and get working.
It takes around 15 minutes to steam out to our location, and as individual teams we get undersuits and drysuits on, ensure bailout tanks checked for pressure, and repeat all pre-checks on our individual CCRs. All teams work in a rotation to ensure as much time as is feasible is spent working with one of the two water dredges we have in operation. These gentle pumps allow the slow and careful removal of sediment to unveil what may lie beneath.
Once on the site, we start excavating in our teams of two or three divers. It is important that the top layer of sand and sediment is carefully removed and that nothing important is unintentionally sucked up the dredge. Although we are very aware of time constraints it is important not to rush and risk destroying the wreck remains from thousands of years ago. The site is split into a grid and each team takes a square, first metal detecting over and marking with flags any possible rings, before then starting slow excavation with the dredge and small trowels. Any artefacts found are carefully labeled and bagged for lifting to the surface. Everything is documented by videographers and still photographers for a thorough and complete recording of all activities. All too quickly our agreed 60 minutes of bottom time is up, and reluctantly we signal each other that it is time to ascend. Depending on what artefact we find and bring back these few hours on deco can be extremely boring or completely thrilling! If nothing is brought back the time is spent playing with shells at 6m, or playing rock/paper/scissors with a buddy. If we have found something though, deco is an endless excitement of passing the artifact carefully around while we chatter excitedly to each other through our rebreathers, analysing and considering what the find may be, or admiring it for its beauty.
The day by no means ends when all divers are out of the water. Not only does all dive gear need to be freshwater rinsed and fully stripped, the archaeology continues! All finds are placed in buckets of water before being measured, photographed, sketched and finally, 3D modeled. Artefacts stay on site until the end of the project when they are transported to the conservation laboratories of the Greek Ephorate of Antiquities in Athens for further analysis and documentation. It is here that our direct part in the journey of these artefacts comes to an end, although our interest in their story definitely remains, and we all eagerly await future results news regarding them.
Archaeological excavations don’t always produce beautiful or show-stopping objects, such as statues, gold rings, or even something as unique as the Antikythera Mechanism. Some seasons very little is found. It’s a standard archaeological joke that anything of significance is always found on the final day of excavation! Whatever we find though, the process of excavation itself is always fascinating, and the amazing opportunity archaeologists have to work underwater on ancient sites is an experience never to be forgotten.