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Greek ship carrying parts of the Parthenon is giving up more secrets

Divers on the latest archaeological expedition to the shipwreck of the Mentor, which sank in 1802 with valuable sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens on board.
Divers on the latest archaeological expedition to the shipwreck of the Mentor, which sank in 1802 with valuable sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens on board. (Image credit: G. Issaris)

The latest expedition by divers to the wreck of the Mentor, which sank just off the island of Kythera (also spelled Kithira and Kythira) in 1802, has recovered several pieces of the ship's rigging, coins, the leather sole of a shoe, a metal buckle, a token for playing cards, two chess pieces, fragments of cooking utensils and other seemingly mundane objects.

When it sank, the ship was carrying marble sculptures chipped from the badly damaged Parthenon in Athens — later known as the "Elgin Marbles or Parthenon Marbles. These spectacular sculptures — which depict Greek gods, heroes and animals — are now on display at the British Museum in London.

Related: 20 of the most mysterious shipwrecks ever

But the small objects recovered from the wreck reveal intriguing aspects of the lives of the people onboard the ship when it sank, said marine archaeologist Dimitris Kourkoumelis, of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, a department of the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports.

"The target is to understand how people were living and how was life onboard, not only for the passengers but also for the crew," Kourkoumelis told Live Science. "We've found gold coins from Utrecht in Holland, as well as from Spain, and also coins from the Ottoman Empire — so it was really a cosmopolitan group [of people] on the Mentor." 

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The wreck of the Mentor is most famous for the statues from the Parthenon that it carried when it sank, but the Greek excavations have focused on recovering much smaller objects.

The wreck of the Mentor is most famous for the statues from the Parthenon that it carried when it sank, but the Greek excavations have focused on recovering much smaller objects. (Image credit: V. Tsiairis)
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The Mentor managed to stay afloat until its crew and passengers scramble onto the rocks at Kythera, but it sank quickly after that; much of the wooden hull is now surrounded by rocks.

The Mentor managed to stay afloat until its crew and passengers scramble onto the rocks at Kythera, but it sank quickly after that; much of the wooden hull is now surrounded by rocks. (Image credit: V. Tsiairis)
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Many of the objects recovered in the recent excavations were pieces of the ship hull and rigging; the Mentor was built in America and they are unlike pieces from Mediterranean ships of the same age.

Many of the objects recovered in the recent excavations were pieces of the ship hull and rigging; the Mentor was built in America and they are unlike pieces from Mediterranean ships of the same age. (Image credit: G. Issaris)
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Divers on the latest archaeological expedition to the shipwreck of the Mentor, which sank in 1802 with valuable sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens on board.

Divers on the latest archaeological expedition to the shipwreck of the Mentor, which sank in 1802 with valuable sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens on board. (Image credit: G. Issaris)

Disputed sculptures

The Mentor was an American-built brig that belonged to the British diplomat Thomas Bruce, a Scottish nobleman titled the seventh Earl of Elgin. Elgin, as he was known, used the ship to carry antiquities to England that he'd collected while stationed in Constantinople as Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.Although the ship made it to Kythera, where its passengers and crew scrambled onto the rocks, the Mentor soon sank beneath about 65 feet (20 meters) of seawater. 

Elgin's secretary, William Hamilton, then spent almost two years on Kythera, overseeing the salvage of the sculptures by sponge divers, who were paid to recover them from the wreck without any diving equipment.

Related: 30 of the world's most valuable treasures that are still missing

The sculptures were then shipped to England, and Elgin sold them to the British Museum in 1816. 

Elgin claimed he'd paid for the sculptures and that he'd obtained a decree from the ruling Ottoman government to take them. But no evidence of the decree has ever been found, according to the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, a nongovernmental organization.

When Greece recovered its independence from the Ottomans in 1832, it began a series of projects to retrieve looted art, and the Elgin Marbles were at the top of the list. Since then, every successive Greek government has demanded that the sculptures be returned. So far, however, the British Museum has refused, although it has offered to loan them out temporarily. 

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Remains of the Parthenon, one of the buildings on the acropolis of Athens.

The Parthenon was a temple to the goddess Athena on the Acropolis in Athens; it was in ruins when Lord Elgin claimed to have purchased the marbles that adorned it. (Image credit: Shutterstock)
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The latest excavations also recovered the metal part of a buckle; the leather strip that it once fastened has now rotted away.

The latest excavations also recovered the metal part of a buckle; the leather strip that it once fastened has now rotted away. (Image credit: P. Vezirtzis)
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Archaeological expeditions to the wreck of the Mentor in previous years have recovered numerous objects, including coins bottles, part of a watch, and part of a clay pipe.

Archaeological expeditions to the wreck of the Mentor in previous years have recovered numerous objects, including coins bottles, part of a watch, and part of a clay pipe. (Image credit: Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities)
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The artifacts recovered from the Mentor shipwreck by the Greek government excavations include several pieces of gold jewelry and gold coins, such as this Spanish coin from 1756.

The artifacts recovered from the Mentor shipwreck by the Greek government excavations include several pieces of gold jewelry and gold coins, such as this Spanish coin from 1756. (Image credit: Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities)
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This metal coin or gaming piece recovered during the latest excavations is thought to have been used as a token in a card game.

This metal coin or gaming piece recovered during the latest excavations is thought to have been used as a token in a card game. (Image credit: P. Vezirtzis)
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The statues and marble friezes from the Parthenon that were on board the Mentor when it sank were salvaged and sold to the British Museum, where they are now on display.

The statues and marble friezes from the Parthenon that were on board the Mentor when it sank were salvaged and sold to the British Museum, where they are now on display. (Image credit: Andrew Dunn, CC BY 2.0)

Famous shipwreck

Kourkoumelis has led diving expeditions to the wreck of the Mentor every summer since 2009, after the Greek government enacted legislation to protect the shipwreck and formally ordered state archaeologists to excavate it. 

According to Kourkoumelis, the construction of the Mentor is very different from that of similar ships built in the Mediterranean. "The American ships were built to travel in the open ocean, and so they were much stronger — it's very interesting to work on a ship like that," he said.

The wooden vessel is now rotting away after more than 200 years under the waves, and only a few more years of excavations will be possible, he said.

No more items from Elgin's collection have ever been found, but the wreck has yielded numerous small objects over the years, including gold jewelry, ancient coins and Greek pottery that probably came from the private collections of some of the passengers onboard when it sank, he said.

The most recent finds last year included two wooden chess pieces — another six pieces from the same set were found in previous years — and a metal token or coin that was probably used in a card game. 

Archaeologists plan to scientifically examine all of the items, many of which will be displayed at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Kourkoumelis said. The museum already displays about half of the Parthenon sculptures that remain, and it has space reserved for the Elgin Marbles if they are ever returned to Greece.

"We are excavating the ship that is associated with one of the most painful episodes of the recent history of Greece," Kourkoumelis said. "I think it is very important to show that we are not only asking for things, but we are working for the protection of everything that is involved."

Originally published on Live Science.