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Bronze sage
Updated: 2018-09-25 07:49:21
( China Daily )

A marble statue of a boy found on a Antikythera shipwreck is also part of the same exhibition being held at the Palace Museum. [PHOTO BY JIANG DONG/CHINA DAILY]

Ancient relics recovered from a ship that sank in the Aegean Sea more than two millennia ago are on show in Beijing, Wang Kaihao reports.

While a single tragedy in the first century BC may seem trivial in the context of human's long maritime history, a stroke-of-luck discovery two millennia later brought the event to renewed prominence.

It started when a Greek ship was swallowed up by the waves of the Aegean Sea after setting off from today's Anatolia in Turkey to Italy, not far from the Greek island of Antikythera, near which the accident happened.

In 1900, as another storm forced a boat of sponge divers to haul anchor off the coast of Antikythera, the captain returned from one dive not with a sponge in hand, but a bronze statue.

Large-scale underwater excavations soon followed and through these an amazing hoard of Hellenic relics were uncovered 50 meters below the sea's surface.

And now, the unfinished voyage of that ship has finally been completed-and even extended beyond its original destination-thanks to The Antikythera Shipwreck exhibition that opened at the Palace Museum in Beijing on Sept 14.

The skeletons of a man, a young woman, and a teenager whose gender remains unidentified, were retrieved from the ship, which is estimated to be 30 meters long and 10 meters wide, making the ship the world's earliest known shipwreck containing human remains, according to Maria Lagogianni-Georgakarakos, the director of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Greece, and curator of the Beijing exhibition.

An abundance of "funerary objects"-from articles of everyday use such as pottery, glass vases and coins, to luxurious artworks like marble statues, bronze figures and jewels-retrieved from the site of the shipwreck are all included in the exhibition.

It's a story about how conquerors venerated the rich culture of the regions they ruled.

"Although archaeological research has not yet reached definite conclusions about the provenance of the workshops behind the sculptures nor the manner of their acquisition," the curator says, "it's certain that their final destination involved established art markets in Roman Italy.

"The people there had a thirst for high quality Greek art and technology," she adds.

The fragments from the bronze statue are one of the highlights of the 343 artifacts on display at the ongoing exhibition.

Although only the head, arms, feet and some pieces of clothing survive, the enticing glamour of its original form is easy to imagine, particularly through its vividly-portrayed face and deep eyes.

This statue of an elderly sage is estimated to have been forged around 230 BC, more than a century before the ship capsized, and is believed to have once been displayed in a public area.

The "Antikythera philosopher", among a set of bronze statues, is the most highlighted exhibit at an ongoing exhibition of the Palace Museum, displaying 300-odd relics retrieved from an ancient Greek shipwreck. [PHOTO BY JIANG DONG/CHINA DAILY]

"The unkempt appearance recalls images of a Cynic philosopher," the curator says. "The work has recognizable elements of the early baroque."

But the exact identity of the man remains somewhat controversial to this day. Consequently, the statue is currently referred to as the "Antikythera philosopher".

Archaeologists also discovered components from at least three daybeds, some of which have made their way to Beijing for the exhibition. Similar items frequently appear in marble reliefs from ancient Roman times, but tangible physical evidence of their existence like these are rare discoveries.

"This daybed was surely a part of the most valuable cargo on the ship," the curator says. "Greek works of art played a significant role in the luxurious adornment of Roman architecture."

Perhaps, the situation is just like the preface of this exhibition has it: "A shipwreck means misery in terms of the cost of lives, but it also creates a time capsule that seals history."

After lying soaked in salty waters for 2,000 years, many of the exhibits were heavily eroded and had been torn apart. But Bo Haikun, the Chinese exhibition designer for the project, doesn't consider this as an obstacle to giving visitors an insight into classic Hellenic aesthetics.

"You don't just gain a sense of beauty from well-preserved and exquisite articles," he says. "These exhibits may be broken, but we can still feel the charm of their fine art from the details."

For example, a fragment of a boxers' left arm from a bronze statue is vivid enough to reveal a fierce fighting scene from an arena, especially through the thongs worn on his hands. And for an eroded set of marble statues depicting the Homeric heroes, Odysseus' and Achilles' mottled faces don't fail to reflect their spirit and legend.

Bo chose blue as the theme color for the exhibition hall, while exhibits were placed on white platforms to represent the sand at the bottom of sea. To create a sense of vicissitude and indicate the difficulty of the voyage, he assembled marble fragments from the art pieces and the sailors' everyday articles to create a montage.

"An amazing amount of knowledge is hidden in these artifacts. The exhibition will help to explain their stories to visitors," Bo adds.

The Antikythera mechanism, a set of 82 components from a bronze analog computer, was found in the shipwreck. Lagogianni-Georgakarakos says it represents a major scientific achievement for the ancient Greeks.

The complex assembly of gear wheels created an output in three main dials, and the mechanical parts were protected by a wooden-framed case.

"The similar technology only reappeared in Europe during the 14th century," she says.

However, archaeologists finally decided not to allow this precious artifact to be removed from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens for the Beijing exhibition because of its fragile condition.

Despite this, the exhibits in Beijing include several replicas of the computer, based on academic research over the last century and detailed illustrations of its historical background.

It was also a pity that a bronze statue known as the "youth of Antikythera", probably the most complete artifact from the wreck, could not be given approval to be flown to Beijing following an X-ray check.

"So, I welcome Chinese visitors to join our exhibition in Athens to see them," the Greek curator says.

To bring The Antikythera Shipwreck to the Palace Museum, 10 Greek archaeologists, two sculptors, one architect, and 16 conservators spent eight months preparing.

And this project is just one example of the collaboration between the Palace Museum and its Greek counterpart.

Also on Sept 14, an exhibition of items from the Palace Museum opened at the Acropolis Museum in Athens as part of the growing cultural exchanges between the two countries.

A Sino-Greek laser technology laboratory opened in 2016 at the Palace Museum focusing on the conservation of stone cultural relics.

Contact the writer at wangkaihao@chinadaily.com.cn

If you go

The Antikythera Shipwreck

Through Dec 16 (closed on Mondays)

Open hours: 8:30 am to 5 pm (no entry after 4:10 pm) Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwumen) Gallery, the Palace Museum, 4 Jingshan Qianjie, Dongcheng district, Beijing

More information on official website of the museum: en.dpm.org.cn

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