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Antique luxury and an unsolved riddle

In a special exhibition the “Antikenmuseum Basel” is showing the remains of a ship that had sunk at Antikythera near Crete. Along with statues, jewellery and artfully ornamented vases so popular in ancient Rome, it also carried a bronze cube that is continues to puzzle scientists.

By Isabelle Wanner

The so-called Mechanism of Antikythera is the main attraction of the special exhibition at the “Antikenmuseum Basel.” The object in question is a bronze cube, consisting of several layers of gear wheels on top of each other, which was able to calculate the movements of the sun and the moon and was probably used as some kind of calendar. However, scientists are still baffled by it – the precise purpose and function of this find, also known as the first computer, has yet to be discovered. In an impressive display the exhibition demonstrates how the mechanism functions, and it also dedicates a part of it to the watch maker Hublot which has recreated the mechanism in minuscule size, making it possible to carry a piece of Antikythera on your wrist, connecting the antique world with the modern.

The numerous exhibits give a glimpse into how heavy the freight ship’s cargo was. A storm in 70 BC sealed the freight ship’s fate. It sank close to Antikythera near Crete, not only taking down with it the entire cargo but also the whole crew. It was only in the year 1900 that sponge divers discovered the shipwreck in 55-metre deep water, rescuing hundreds of antique art treasures. The wreck continues to remain a popular location for diving expeditions. Even the pioneer of oceanography, Jacques-Yves Costeau, approached the remains of the ship in the 1950s and 1970s, bringing further art treasures to the light of day. The most recent expedition was in the summer of 2015, with the aim of learning more about the art treasures of the Hellenistic period.

Among the most impressive pieces found are life-size statues made of marble and bronze, as well as a variety of gold jewellery and numerous vases. Having lain so many centuries on the bottom of the sea, most statues are severely damaged, but by their posture and their attributes you can recognise who they represent. They are exhibited marked by the traces of time and water, and thanks to artful use of lighting, mirrors, and nautical images, they still seem to be at the bottom of the sea.

Another particular element on the ship of Antikythera is an order by famous the Roman orator, politician and philosopher Cicero. As he had written in his letters, he had been waiting impatiently for the delivery of his ordered goods – in vain, however. The discovery of the Antikythera wreck proves how much cultural exchange between two nations had been going on. The whole cargo shows this cultural transfer. For example, even dining couches, regarded as status symbols in Rome, were made on the Greek island of Delos.

Not only does the exhibition highlight the cargo but also the ship itself. It appears to have been an older model as the wood that had been used in its construction seems to date back to 200 BC, clearly showing the excellence of Greek ship building. Other findings show the clever technology applied when loading the ship. Lead weights plus proper storage techniques were used to help prevent the ship capsizing.

Every Thursday there are guided tours held in German. Guided tours in either French or English take place every second and third Sunday of the month. The special exhibition will continue until 27 March 2016

Antikenmuseum Basel
The sunken treasure
St. Alban-Graben 5
4010 Basel

For opening times, entry fee and guided tours please click on the link “The sunken treasure” above (page in English).

Translated to English & proofread by Martin Pütter & Andi Curran

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