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Woods Hole researchers find human skeleton aboard ancient Greek shipwreck

Archaeologists Brendan Foley, Theotokis Theodoulou, and Alex Tourtas excavated the Antikythera shipwreck.
Archaeologists Brendan Foley, Theotokis Theodoulou, and Alex Tourtas excavated the Antikythera shipwreck.Brett Seymour/EUA

The skeleton, some 2,100 years old, has secrets to tell. And scientists intend to use their latest tools to unravel the ancient past of this discovery.

The old bones were found aboard a Greek ship that dates to 65 BC. The discovery was made by specialists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and from Greece.

It marks the first time since the dawn of DNA studies that such an aged skeleton has been identified aboard a ship.

The skeleton was found Aug. 31 aboard the Antikythera Shipwreck, the remnants of a Greek vessel discovered in the Aegean Sea off the coast of the Greek island Antikythera, Woods Hole officials said in a statement.

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The shipwreck is the largest ancient shipwreck ever discovered.

The team, led by researchers from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports in Greece and from Woods Hole, found a skull with a jaw and teeth, and bones that came from the arms, legs, and ribs. Woods Hole, which is headquartered in Falmouth, said other parts of the skeleton are embedded in the seafloor, but await excavation.

Specialists believe the skeleton, which appears to be in relatively good condition, has survived more than 2,000 years at the bottom of the sea, Woods Hole officials said.

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Once Greek authorities give their approval, the skeleton will be sent to a laboratory at the National History Museum of Denmark, according to Woods Hole. Researchers there are hoping to determine the ethnicity and geographic origin of the individual if enough viable DNA is present in the bones.

“Archaeologists study the human past through the objects our ancestors created,” Brendan Foley, a Woods Hole marine archaeologist, said in a statement. “With the Antikythera Shipwreck, we can now connect directly with this person who sailed and died aboard the Antikythera ship.”

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The bone and other remains of the body were found aboard a ship from 65 B.C.
The bone and other remains of the body were found aboard a ship from 65 B.C.Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution

This is not the first major discovery aboard the historic shipwreck.

The vessel, which researchers think may have been a massive grain carrier, was discovered in 1900 by Greek sponge divers. They found dozens of marble statues, thousands of antiquities, and most notably, the Antikythera Mechanism, which is known as the world’s first computer.

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In 1976, researchers went back to the wreck and recovered close to 300 more artifacts, as well as skeletal remains of some passengers and crew, Woods Hole said. The skeletal remains found last month are in addition to those recovered four decades earlier, researchers emphasized.

The current research team returned to the shipwreck to create three-dimensional digital models of every artifact.

“Our reality capture technology is not only helping share the amazing story of the Antikythera wreck with the world using digital models and 3-D printed artifacts, it is enabling important preservation and furthering meaningful research,” Jonathan Knowles, the Woods Hole Autodesk Explorer in Residence, said in a statement.


Olivia Quintana can be reached at olivia.quintana@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @oliviasquintana.