It’s Deeper than We Think It Is

by Gus Donohoo


J. M. W. Turner. “Fishermen at Sea,” (1796). Oil on canvas. 91 X 122 centimeters.


Claude Monet. “The Cliffs at Etretat,” (1886). Oil on canvas. 81 x 66 centimeters.


Adriaen Collaert. “Zeemonsters Rondom Een Schip,” (1594-1598). Paper. 200 X 269 Millimeters. Courtesy Rijks Museum, Amsterdam.


Surinam Inshore Squid (Doryteuthis surinamensis). Photo: © Hans Hillewaert.


The Warty Comb Jelly or Sea Walnut (Mnemiopsis leidyi). Photo: © Hans Hillewaert.



It’s Deeper than We Think It Is

We Ourselves See in All Rivers and Oceans. It Is the Image of the Ungraspable Phantom of Life; And This Is the Key to It All

In 1990, as the Voyager spacecraft hurdled irretrievably into the infinite night almost four billion miles from Earth, she took one final backwards glance to capture with her dying electronic senses a single lonely photograph that revealed the planet as an infinitesimal, pale blue dot—our collective oceans.

Portraying these oceans artistically is a difficult endeavour, accomplished successfully by a rarefied few. The complexities are manifold; the ocean is an impossibly vast fusion of water, wind, and light, like a trillion broken mirrors in an eternal spiral. William Turner managed to capture it through an application of light—with suns rising and setting amidst storms and broken days. Katsushika Hokusai was more abstracted, yet his waves have extraordinary presence—there is life in them, anger, rage. Then there were the Impressionists who were masters of capturing the splintered light that gets flung from the water’s endless facets, but whose style was less adept for when the sea was lively.

Giving an accurate portrayal of the ocean is not only fiendishly difficult, and requires a prodigious hand, but high quality paints, delicate brushes, and advanced compositional techniques. As we peer further back into history, our ancestors seemed to perceive something insurmountable in the effort. They rarely even attempted to convey the sea other than as a cartographer’s uncertain lines, or by the totem of whichever god held dominion over the deep, and instead focused more on portraying the technology that was used to explore it: ships, boats, reed, and timber.

And the sea life, too, the mysterious beasts that ascended from the depths—these were of tremendous interest. The sea, then, was a simmering pan of mystery, a bountiful source of sustenance and resource, and a dark and perilous grave.

In 480 BC at the Battle of Salamis, 378 Greek ships smashed a Persian fleet more than a thousand strong, including 300 prized Phoenician warships.

The Phoenicians were a famed maritime people whose flourishing mercantile city-states crisscrossed the Mediterranean for over 600 years—from Tyre to Carthage to Tangier—yet who were conquered by the Persians 60 years before Salamis. Persian casualties in the fracas were terrible, and Herodotus claimed that their losses were far higher than the Greek’s because they didn’t know how to swim.

The warm Mediterranean—on that day at least—granted some forgiveness to the floundering, dog-paddling men and women dodging arrows in the brine, but in the rolling swells that Turner painted, or in the waves breaking in Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, swimming appears rather more fruitless.

Perhaps James Clavell said it best in his novel Tai-Pan: “If you’re a sailor; best not know how to swim. Swimming only prolongs the inevitable—if the sea wants you and your time has come.”

Some 400 years after the Battle of Salamis, when the broken Phoenician ships were no longer flotsam—but were vanishing wrecks dissolving in atomic spirals via the organisms and chemistries of the sea—another ship would meet a similarly dark fate less than 150 miles away, just off the island of Antikythera.

It is uncertain what the vessel was, who owned it, or why and how it sunk to the bottom, yet this mighty ship once carried what is probably the most significant treasure to have ever been recovered from beneath the sands of time—the Antikythera Mechanism.

The wreck is probably Roman in origin, and the ship is presumed to have been hauling spoils of Empire back to Rome—either in the form of looted goods, or as tribute.

While the Antikythera wreck has oft been identified as a lost treasure ship that belonged to the Julius Caesar prototype General Sulla (the first Roman Statesman to turn his troops on the city of Rome), a stack of coins recovered from the wreckage places it a little closer in time, and suggests that it may have been a tribute ship bound for Rome via the way of Rhodes, perhaps on its way to the Triumph of Pompey the Great in 61 BC.

At the time, this was the largest procession of its kind to have ever taken place, and in it the triumphant General flaunted a haul of plunder, slaves, and booty that took 700 ships to carry.

Whatever role in the party the Antikythera hoard might have been intended for is unclear, and the goods would almost certainly have been mere blushes in an embarrassment of riches, but whatever their origin, for almost 2,000 years the ship and its trove lay broken under the swell, absorbed and amalgamated by the sea floor, 200 feet below.

In 1900, curious Greek divers hunting for the moderately more banal prize of marine sponges saw amidst the shifting blue light arms and legs reaching up through the sand—barnacled statues of horses and men.

The value of the trove was beyond price, and the size of the haul was mind-boggling. There was glasswork of exceptional grace; lamps and amphorae; earrings of gold, emerald, and pearl; and statues of remarkable quality—some of them wholly or partially consumed by two millennia of submersion. And there, diminutive in the midst of some of the highest culture to have ever transcended the ages, was an oxide-laden lump of bronze that could fit into a shoebox—the Antikythera Mechanism.

It is a device of clockwork, thirty gears carved from beaten bronze, with a crank on the side to operate it. This might seem underwhelming, but it is thought that these lumps of bronze could—quite accurately—simultaneously calculate the phase of the moon, the lunar solar calendar, the position of the moon and the sun in the sky (and possibly the planets), and the occurrence of solar and lunar eclipses.

The device is the world’s oldest computer, a technical accomplishment that, according to author Jo Marchant in her book Decoding the Heavens, is “beyond any but the most skilled clockmakers today.” It has gears with prime number ratios of teeth (advanced engineering—and mathematics—that reduces wear by stopping the same teeth coming together constantly), is the first known use of epicyclic gearing (needed for modelling elliptical orbits), and is the first known example of differential gearing. Differential gearing—necessary for calculating the phase of the moon relative to the location of the sun (or for making your car turn a corner)—would not be invented again in Europe until 1720, before the innovation went on to play a major part in the industrial revolution by enabling the mass production of cotton yarn.

This could be the work of great astronomer Hipparchus, or the legendary polymath Posidonius. Both men were active in Rhodes, and a number of archaeological and geographical lines of inquiry point the sunken ship in that direction.

It was the Greek sponge divers who did the lion’s share of the recovery work on the wreck (a perilous job—one man died and several were paralyzed), but the efforts were to take on a more glamorous air when Jacques Cousteau got involved. Cousteau—the French scuba icon who made the red beanie a style-essential for any maritime adventure—had two expeditions to the site aboard the good ship RV Calypso.

Cousteau and his crew recovered some enticing artefacts, including a bronze statuette of a boxer with a fine right hook, but nothing to match the grandeur of the earlier hoard, and none of the extra missing pieces of the Mechanism that had been hoped for. The wreck was in deep water, and Cousteau’s crew could only spend 20 minutes at the bottom at a time, lest they get decompression sickness. Sailing atop the sea is one technical challenge, slipping under it is quite another.

Aristotle is the first to have described a means to peek beneath the ocean’s watery veil using a diving bell, and his student Alexander the Great is said to have used such a device to “see the secrets of the sea.” But diving bells are crude innovations—giant inverted cups of air—and it was not until 1620 that something vaguely resembling a modern submarine was built.

The early diving suits were extensions of the same basic principle as a diving bell, and it was these copper and brass helmeted getups that the sponge divers used to harvest the Antikythera wreck and which now adorn fish and chip shops the world over. The surrealist Salvador Dalí also famously donned such a suit to deliver a predictably unconventional lecture on his art. When he began suffocating from oxygen deprivation he was fortunately rescued by the poet David Gascoyne.

The 2014 equivalent to the diving bell is a garment that has more in common with a submarine than a diving suit. Fully pressurized like a spaceship, the Exosuit that spearheaded this year’s expedition to the Antikythera wreck could double as a prop from an Iron Man film. It weighs an elephantine 530 pounds, has large thrusters on the back of it, rotatable joints, and robotic claw-hands. It also has a price tag of $1.5 million.

The Exosuit and a quiver of other avant-garde technologies like automated, unmanned, robotic submarines were used in the recent and on-going excavations of the wreck—the first proper survey since Cousteau’s last visit in 1976. Already the wreck’s anchor has been lifted from the deep, along with a variety of sculptural remains which offer strong hints that even more of the hoard may lay hidden in the sand, finally now within reach of the most dexterous tools of the age.

The Exosuit could be described as Space Age if it wasn’t for how antiquated the epithet now feels—it’s 42 years since humans last walked on the surface of the moon. We seem to have stepped over the Space Age, or back-peddled underneath it, and have channelled our collective efforts into the Age of Personal Technology instead. Exosuit’s recent deployment at Antikythera does remind us that our best engineering can still goad humanity into taking bold steps into the abyss. There’s a delicate irony in having to turn to the most sophisticated tools that humanity has ever developed in order to learn a little bit more about the most advanced technology of the distant past.

It’s hard to determine the size of the hole that the loss of the Antikythera Mechanism may have torn in the development of the ancient world—if it made a hole at all. Although the next clockwork device to have emerged from history doesn’t pop up until around 600 years later in the form of a Byzantine portable sundial, some scholars believe that similar devices survived the ancient world, and that the knowledge passed into the hands of the Islamic philosophers, where the technology was used to drive highly specialized scientific instruments or remained as mere curiosity. Six hundred years is a long time though, and while the Byzantine Sundial is an impressive artifact, it is orders of magnitudes less sophisticated than the Mechanism.

In 1977, the science-fiction supremo Arthur C. Clarke—aware of only some of the complexity now known to have been contained in the device—would speculate that had the Mechanism been more widely known, and had the knowledge contained in its construction been widely applied, then “By this time we would not merely be pottering around on the Moon. We would have reached the nearer stars.” One can’t help but wonder then—had the Mechanism survived—where might the Voyager space probe’s equivalent now be? Which distant star could it be orbiting, from what far galactic reach—from what extraordinary, ego-crushing distance might humanity now be trying to cast back its furthest, most furrowed squint in order to steal a glimpse of our insignificant little home, backwards through time and space, towards a sight perhaps only half-remembered, towards a miniscule glimmering of ocean, towards our pale blue dot.

Written by Gus Donohoo