Art & Culture

Sunken Treasures

30 June 2020

Archaeological discoveries of ancient relics and human remains tend to capture our imagination. When Damien Hirst chose to fake a wreck find to serve as a theme for his 2017 Venice exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, he knew how the subaquatic realm doubled the intrigue. Yet you don't need YBA fakes, while there are plenty of real archaeological recoveries on display in museums around the world. The tales they tell are the stuff of dreams for academics and historians, not to mention collectors and the downright curious. They reveal the human condition, and allow us to marvel at how our ancestors, centuries before our gadget-infested times, dealt with the messy business of life – and death.

Mary Rose

When Henry VIII's magnificent wooden warship was rediscovered in 1971, resting on the seabed near the Isle of Wight in southern England, a frisson of excitement rippled through the archaeological world. And when the Mary Rose was finally raised in 1982, it turned out be one of the most important and expensive salvage projects ever. Just metres from where the warship was built in 1510, from 600 local oak trees, the wreck of the Tudor warship now stands on public display in its new £35m home. The UK's maritime find of the century, was packed with priceless artefacts that provided a snapshot of life in Tudor England. Visitors can now view medieval wrought iron cannons, an extensive collection of textiles, around 400 pairs of shoes and boots, ceramic jars still faintly scented with essential oils, and cooking implements used by the crew - a fascinating window on 33 years spent at sea, before the Mary Rose sank, off the Hampshire coast, while attacking French invaders in 1545.


One of the world's most famous and ancient shipwrecks was first located in 1901 by sponge divers, who spotted the broken limbs of bronze statues some 180 feet below the sea, off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera. And since then, the first century B.C. Antikythera shipwreck has shed new light on aspects of Roman culture, notably in 1976, when French marine explorer Jacques Cousteau excavated the ruins to find additional statues and smaller artefacts. But it was in 2006 that further treasures, including a sarcophagus lid, marble statue pieces, and a mysterious bronze disk were eventually discovered by marine archaeologist Aggeliki Simossi and his team. Simossi suggests that the open tilt of some of the statues' hands and fingers were modelled after philosophers. The statues would have been high art even in their day, but it's the small, bronze disk that is the most exciting. It's strikingly similar to the Antikythera mechanism that measures celestial movements with flawless accuracy. So accurate in fact, that it's often referred to as an "ancient computer." Simossi and archaeologist Brendan Foley from Lund University in Sweden resumed their research, before returning to the shipwreck site in May 2018, for more yet excavations. These promise exciting results in the months to come.

In the meantime, antique lovers can satisfy a craving with the 30th edition of La Biennale Paris. The antiques extravaganza runs from the 8th to the 16th September 2018 at the Grand Palais, this year with a stripped back number of exhibitors to broaden the scope for larger pieces, such as furniture, paintings and exceptional objects. Far from being a common-or-garden art or antiques fair, La Biennale sells itself as part ephemeral museum, part cultural phenomenon. Nearly 5,000 treasures - largely from French and European galleries and auction houses, and a few pulled from beneath the waves - are vetted for their authenticity. This year, La Biennale Paris is overseen by visionary fashion designer and Guest Creative Director for La Biennale, Jean-Charles Castelbajac.

If you'd like more details on exclusive access to La Biennale Paris 2018; if you're looking to start an art or antiques collection, or you're keen to join a curated programme of intimate, limited-access art events and talks, please contact [email protected]

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