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Statues that came from the sea

Posted in Adventure, Art on Sunday, 22 April 2007

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Statues from the sea

Some people set out deliberately in search of adventure. Others stumble on it through sheer chance, ordinary people whose thoughts normally turn on the next meal or the prospect of a rest after a hard day’s work. Such men were Elias Stadiatis and Demetrios Kondos.

Shortly before Easter, 1900, two sponge-fishing boats from the Greek island of Syme were on their way through the Aegean Sea when they were hit by a storm. The leader of the expedition was Captain Demetrios Kondos, and he made for shelter off the little island of Antikythera.

After the storm had subsided, the sailor decided to try his luck looking for sponges by the island. The first man into his diving suit was Elias Stadiatis: he was lowered over the side — and into the biggest adventure of his life. The diver’s feet touched bottom, and, as the waters cleared around him, Elias found himself surrounded by strange shapes. Men lay sprawled on the floor of the sea; women sunk up to the waist in sand stared up at him.

Sponge-divers have to be brave men, and Elias was no exception, but even he felt a thrill of terror. He soon realised that they were statues, the sunken cargo of a treasure-ship of long ago. Grabbing hold of a bronze arm that lay near his feet, the diver tugged at his line and was quickly hauled to the surface.

When he saw the arm, Captain Kondos quickly donned his own suit and descended. He stayed down a long time, longer than was safe for a man of his age. But he had to be sure of what was there.

Back in Athens, Greek archaeologists were highly excited when they learned of the discovery. For centuries foreigners had looted Greece’s treasures — those off Antikythera were probably being shipped to Rome around 30 BC after being stolen — and now was the chance for Greece itself to benefit from a major find. It took months to mount a new expedition, but eventually Captain Kondos was back off the island, leading a team of divers. Treacherous winds and currents made holding position over the statues a nightmare. In addition, the diving techniques of the day were not equal to the depths at which the find lay. One diver died, and two others were permanently crippled. But other volunteers filled their places. The treasure is now on display in the National Museum in Athens — lasting testimony to the courage of the sponge-divers who, by their luck and skill, recovered for their country a lost part of its heritage.

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