Deep-Diving ‘Exosuit’ Lets Scientists Explore 2,000-Year-Old Shipwreck

Jun 17, 2014

By Kelly Dickerson

A treasure trove of bronze and marble statues, gold jewelry and ancient scientific instruments may be buried in sand, hundreds of feet below the Aegean Sea, and a team of explorers is going after the 2,000-year-old hoard using the most advanced diving suit ever built.

Later this year, scientists and divers plan to explore the so-called Antikythera shipwreck, which settled on the seafloor around 50 B.C. off the coast of Antikythera, a Greek island. The team’s secret weapon is a 6.5-foot-tall (2 meters), 530-pound (240 kilograms) metal diving suit equipped with 1.6-horsepower thrusters that can reach the extreme depths where the ship came to rest.

The so-called Exosuit’s maiden mission will take place in July, when scientists will use the suit to observe and collect bioluminescent organisms off the coast of Rhode Island. If all goes well, the suit will be brought to Greece in September.

Brendan Foley, a maritime archaeologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts and co-director of the Antikythera mission, thinks the ship’s entire main cargo hold is buried under layers of sand. Previous explorations have only scratched the surface of what the shipwreck might hold, but the Exosuit will make an extensive exploration possible, and the mission could unearth some incredible artifacts.

“It’slikely that sediment will hold the kind of stuff we can’t even imagine,” Foley told Live Science. “Our eyes light up thinking about it. It’s the kind of thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night. These are artifacts that have never been seen since the time of Caesar.”

History of the wreck

The ancient shipwreck remained hidden until 1900, when Greek sponge divers first spotted it off the coast of Antikythera. Among statues, gold jewelry and other luxury goods, the sponge divers pulled the world’s oldest known computer from the wreckage. Scientists believe the device, called the Antikythera mechanism, functioned as an analog computer that could predict eclipses, phases of the moon and other astronomical events. It predates all other computing devices by almost 1,000 years.

Aside from a brief mission in 1976 led by Jacques Cousteau, the shipwreck has remained undisturbed until now.

The wreck spans an estimated area about 130 feet (40 m) long and 33 feet (10 m) wide, located precariously just west of  a steep vertical drop. The first exploration in 1900 almost sent the whole ship tumbling over the edge, said Foley, and some artifacts might have slipped down the trench over time. The team will use the Exosuit, made by the Vancouver-based company Nuytco Research, and other high-tech diving equipment to reach the bottom of the trench, which could be around 400 feet (120 m) deep.

Preparing for the excavation

Before they start unearthing treasures, the team will map the wreck as precisely as possible. An underwater robot with two cameras mounted side by side will roam the murky bottom for a few days and map the wreck in 3D.

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