Exhibit of the month

View all past exhibits of the month

JULY 2016

When the sea turns into a vast watery grave …


Far beyond the skyline
there is a shipwreck, really far
and we neither know those that drowned
nor their friends and families
who weep.

But also here, nearby, there is another
shipwreck, and, alack, we do know
the drowned, as well as their
friends and families who weep.

(Miltos Sachtouris Τα ναυάγια [The Shipwrecks], from his poetry collection Ανάποδα γυρίσαν τα ρολόγια/ [Clocks turned backwards], 1998)


Grave stele of Demokleides
National Archaeological Museum
Sculpture Collection inv. no 752

Provenance: Unknown
Dimensions: Height: 0.70 m, Width: 0.45 m
Date: 400-375 BC
Display location: Room 18

The grave stele is surmounted by a cornice and palmette antefixes. The deceased Demokleides, son of Demetrios —his name is incised on the architrave, above his head— is depicted seated on the ground and raising his knees before the prow of a trireme[1], as indicated by the protruding curved embolon (ram)[2]. He is shown dressed in short-sleeved chitoniskos sitting on his chlamys. Next to him he has laid down his weaponry, his shield and Corinthian helmet, thereby denoting that he was a hoplite.

He supports his head with his right arm that rests on his knees, immersed in unspeakable sorrow for his life that was lost or for his cruel destiny as his body remained unburied away from home. The abstract character and minimalism of the stele are further accentuated by the absence of colours that would have highlighted the details of the warship. The burnished lower part of the stele was possibly painted blue suggesting the sea. The weaponry and particularly the ship’s embolon (ram) attest to the heroic death of Demokleides in a sea battle. The stele was possibly erected by his family over his cenotaph in his homeland, since the sea was destined to become his watery grave.

Nevertheless, shipwrecks occurred also in times of peace. Merchant ships frequently perished at sea together with their cargo and passengers. The bad weather, deficiencies on the vessel’s hull, insufficient knowledge of the geographic regions, navigation failure, but also piracy, particularly during the Hellenistic period, were the main causes for shipwrecks. According to a statistical study, shipwreck risk for open sea vessels, namely cargo ships, during the Classical and the Hellenistic period ranged between 1:20 and 1:30.

The cargo of merchant ships and, by extension, that of shipwrecks also included works of art and technology. Their shipping to Italy had reached its culmination in the last phase of the Hellenistic period (mid-2nd – late 1st c. BC).

Among the most significant wrecks that have been found in Greek waters is the Shipwreck of Artemision[3], from which the bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon as well as the bronze jockey (Jockey of Artemision) and his horse were retrieved and also the Antikythera Shipwreck[4] from which the bronze Ephebe and the Mechanism were recovered.


[1] Speedy, light, oared warship, that was dominant in the Mediterranean from the 7th to the 4th century B.C. It was capable, due to the large number of rowers, arranged along three superimposed or successive tiers, of accelerating its propulsive power without the need of increasing its length. Included into the crew of 200 men, apart from the 170 eretai (rowers), were also: the trierarch (general commander), the kyvernitis  (helmsman), the keleustis (giving the time to the rowers), the proratis (standing on the prow to keep a sharp lookout), the pentikontarch  (supply administration officer), the naupegos/ marine engineer (responsible for technical matters of the vessel), the trieravlitis (a musician supplying the oar timing with his flute), marines (hoplites, archers) and sailors of general duties.

The role of these particularly fast and agile warships was decisive both in the Persian Wars, culminating in the naval battle of Salamis (480 B.C.), and in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). The war trireme contributed most considerably to the creation of the Athenian Hegemony.

[2] The ram was a wooden metal-plated, or else purely metallic, projection, up to 2 meters long, which constituted an extension of the keel and had the form of an animal or sea monster. It was especially useful in naval battles to cause cracks on the enemy ships (ramming), but also to protect the ship when running aground in shallow waters.

[3] The shipwreck was located at a depth over 45 m. on the north coast of Euboea, near the promontory of Artemision, in parts, across a time span of a decade (1926-1937) and scattered across an area of 13 nautical miles. First, the left hand of the bronze Zeus or Poseidon was retrieved, caught in the nets of fishermen from Skiathos (1926). Later (1928) the front part of the horse with its small jockey was found. It took nine years (1937) for the remaining part of the horse to be found accidentally near Oreoi, and to ascertain that horse and jockey form a single sculptural group. The area was partly investigated in 1959 and in 1975 by J.-Y. Cousteau. In 1980, but also in the early years of the 21st century, the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities explored the area with modern multi-beam sonar sensor equipment, without any positive results, though.

[4] A hallmark in the history of underwater research features in the shipwreck of Antikythera, which was accidentally located, at a depth ranging between 50 and 64 m., by sponge-divers of Syme and was retrieved in a rather legendary manner, after the titanic efforts of themselves, with the assistance of the Royal Navy, in 1900-1901. It is the most important shipwreck that has ever been explored in the Aegean Sea, and the one that inaugurated underwater archaeology as a scientific field of research worldwide.

From the shipwreck there were retrieved about 36 marble statues and parts of many others, the bronze statue of the Ephebe, parts of the bronze statue of a «philosopher», bronze statuettes and parts of bronze statues, fragments of wood but, above all, fragments of the famous «Mechanism».

In 1959 J.-Y. Cousteau together with F. Dumas dived into the shipwreck and determined anew its exact position. In 1976 J.-Y. Cousteau returned to the area with the oceanographic vessel Calypsο and the experienced divers Α. Falco and I. Giacoletto, but this time he collaborated closely with the Greek Archaeological Service (G. Papathanasopoulos, L. Kolonas). During this second research expedition, pieces of wood from the hull of the ship were brought to the surface, along with bronze statuettes, parts of marble statues, gold jewels and a «hoard» of silver cistophoric coins, the study of which contributed to a more precise definition of the date of sinking, around 60 B.C. However, the biggest part of the cargo remains still in the sea.

From 2014 onwards, research in the sea area of the wreckage has been intensified. The Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics conduct research with modern multi-beam sonar sensors, as well as with the new «space type» diving suit, the new-generation diving equipment of “Exosuit”, aiming, on one hand, at creating a digital photo-mosaic map of the shipwreck and, on the other hand, at clarifying old and new questions. In parallel, new findings come to light every year.

Dr Elena Vlachogianni


Bibliography on the grave stele of Demokleides (in chronological order):
Σ. Καρούζου, Εθνικόν Αρχαιολογικόν Μουσείον: Συλλογή Γλυπτών. Περιγραφικός Κατάλογος, Αθήναι 1967, 83-84, no. 752.
B. S. Ridgway, Painterly and Pictorial in Greek Relief Sculpture, in W. G. Moon (ed.), Ancient Greek Art and Iconography, Madison 1983, 202-203, figs 13-14.
S. Wegener, Funktion und Bedeutung landschaftlicher Elemente in der griechischen Reliefkunst archaischer bis hellenistischer Zeit, Frankfurt am Main – Bern – New York 1985, 168-169, no 200.
Chr. Clairmont, Classical Attic Tombstones, Kilchberg 1993, Ι 316-317, cat. no 1.330.
A. Scholl, Die attischen Bildfeldstelen des 4. Jhs. v. Chr. Untersuchungen zu den kleinformatigen Grabreliefs im spatklassischen Athen, AM Beih. 17, Berlin 1996, 107, 244-245, cat. no 70.
N. Kaltsas, National Archaeological Museum. The Sculpture, (2nd edition), Athens 2002, 321, cat. no 320 (with fig.).
J. Clair (ed.), Melancholie. Genie und Wahnsinn in der Kunst (Exhibition Catalogue) Paris – Berlin 2006, 49, cat. no. 3 (A. Pasquier).
S. Albersmeier (ed.), Heroes. Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece (Exhibition Catalogue) Baltimore 2009, 254-255, cat. no. 66 (Α. Kokkinou).
The inscription: IG II2 11114

Bibliography on ancient shipwrecks (in chronological order):
H. Frost, Under the Mediterranean. Marine Antiquities, London 1963.
P. Throckmorton, Shipwrecks and Archaeology. The Unharvested Sea, London 1970.
L. Basch, Ancient Wrecks and the Archaeology of Ships, The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 1, 1972, 1-58.
H.-W. Rackl, Βουτιά στα περασμένα. Υποβρύχια αρχαιολογία, (trans. Η. Μαυρίγια). Παράρτημα για την υποβρύχια αρχαιολογία στην Ελλάδα του Χ. Κριτζά, Αθήνα 1978. [The title of the original is: Tauchfahrt in die Vergangenheit. Archaologie unter Wasser: ein Tatsachenbericht, Wien 1964].
K. Muckelroy, Maritime Archaeology, Cambridge 1978.
A. J. Parker, Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and the Roman Provinces, Oxford 1992.
D. Gibbins, Shipwrecks and Maritime Archaeology, World Archaeology, 32.3, 2000, 279-291.

Bibliography on the trireme:
J. S. Morrison – J. F. Coates, The Athenian Trireme: the History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship, Cambridge – New York 1986.
Εμ. Δ. Νελλόπουλος, Η ελληνική τριήρης, Αθήνα 1999.


Newsletter sign-up