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My Favourite Planet > English > Europe > Greece > Dodecanese > Kastellorizo > gallery
Kastellorizo, Greece Kastellorizo gallery 203 of 260

Sponge diver's suit, Kastellorizo Archaeological Museum, Greece at My Favourite Planet

Kastellorizo Archaeological Museum: sponge diver's suit.

Sponges have been used by people since antiquity, and were mentioned by ancient writers such as Homer, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Plato, Hippocrates, Strabo and Pliny the Elder [1]. Kastellorizo was one of the Dodecanese islands famous for its fine sponges. During the 19th century the demand for sponges grew worldwide and the diving industry boomed, the Dodecanese island Kalymnos being considered the centre of the Greek sponge diving industry. Greek divers sailed all over the Mediterranean in search of highly prized sponges, and in the early 20th century some of them became the first to practise underwater archaeology [2].

Sponge diving is a dangerous occupation, and many divers continue to drown or suffer the effects of decompression sickness ("the bends"). In the second century AD the Greek poet Oppianos (Ὀππιανός) wrote at great length about the dangers of the painful occupation:

"The task of the Sponge-cutters I declare that there is none worse nor any work more woeful for men." [3]

The ancient method of free diving or apnea diving (ἄπνοια, apnoia, without breathing), is known in Greece as skandalopetra (Σκανταλοπετρα), a technique involving diving with a large flat stone (πετρα) weighing around 15 kilograms, to allow the diver to sink rapidly to the sea bed where the sponges grow. Today apnea and skandalopetra diving are sports. The use of the weighted diving suit, known in Greek as skafandro (το σκάφανδρο) [4] was introduced from the mid 19th century.

In recent years the sea creature has become more elusive due to over-exploitation and diseases caused by pollution which have drastically reduced numbers. There are ever fewer sponge divers in Greece, since younger people prefer safer occupations, including work in the tourism industry. Continual emigration from the islands to the cities and abroad have also contributed to the demise of the industry. However, some hardy adventurers still work from islands such as Kalymnos.

Further information about diving can be found on

Kastellorizo Archaeological Museum

For information about the museum's history
and opening hours, see gallery page 187.

Map of Kastellorizo harbour, Greece at My Favourite Planet

Map detail: Kastellorizo harbour

1 main harbour of Megisti

2 police station, post office, municipal hotel

3 Agios Georgios church, Nikolaos Stamatiou school, travel agent

4 ferry landing, harbour police, tourist information, bank, duty free

5 coast guard, mosque, path to Lycian tomb

6 Megisti museum, path to Lycian tomb

7 Knight’s Castle, Saints Nicholas & Dimitrios, hamam, windmill

8 Horafia, Platea Panagia, churches, Santrapeia school, Despina sculpture,Taverna Mediterraneo

9 Mandraki harbour and cemetery

10 stairs to clifftop view
© David John
Beyond Kastellorizo's
main harbour:

the Lycian tomb


Knight's castle



up the cliff

Good night,
Notes, references and links

1. Ancient authors on sponges

Several ancient authors mention the sponge being used for bathing and cleaning. The earliest known writer was Homer, describing the metalworking god Hephaistos washing himself with a sponge after working in his smithy:

"and with a sponge wiped he his face and his two hands withal, and his mighty neck and shaggy breast."

Homer, The Iliad, Book 18. At Perseus Digital Library.

In The Odyssey, Homer describes servants being ordered to clean the house of Odysseus:

"Come, wake up; set about sweeping the cloisters and sprinkling them with water to lay the dust. Put the covers on the seats; wipe down the tables, some of you, with a wet sponge Clean out the mixing-jugs and the cups, and for water from the fountain at once."

Homer, The Odyssey, Book 20. At Perseus Digital Library.

The renowned physician Hippocrates of Kos (Ἱπποκράτης, circa 460-370 BC, see Asklepios) recomended the use of sponges in medical treatment:

"When pain seizes the side, either at the commencement or at a later stage, it will not be improper to try to dissolve the pain by hot applications. Of hot applications the most powerful is hot water in a bottle, or bladder, or in a brazen vessel, or in an earthen one; but one must first apply something soft to the side, to prevent pain. A soft large sponge, squeezed out of hot water and applied, forms a good application."

Hippocrates, De diaeta in morbis acutis, part 7 (On regimen of acute diseases). At Perseus Digital Library.

Pliny the Elder reported that the painter Protogenes (Πρωτογένης, 4th century BC), frustrated that the foam on the mouth of the dog in his painting of the mythical Rhodian hero Ialysos was not realistic enough, tried to erase it with a sponge, and thus accidentally achieved the effect he been trying to get with a brush.

"At last, quite out of temper with an art, which, in spite of him, would still obtrude itself, he dashed his sponge against the vexatious spot; when behold: the sponge replaced the colours that it had just removed, exactly in accordance with his utmost wishes, and thus did chance represent Nature in a painting."

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 35, chapter 36. At Perseus Digital Library.

2. Greek sponge divers and underwater archaeology

In Easter 1900 sponge divers from the Dodecanese island Symi discovered the Antikythera shipwreck on the seabed, at a depth of around 50 metres, off the island of Antikythera (Ἀντικύθηρα), in the Sea of Crete (see a map of Greece). Over ten months they continued to dive under difficult conditions to retrieve 108 ancient objects of bronze and marble, mostly statues and statuettes, as well as several pieces of pottery. Some of the finds have been partly restored and are now displayed in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. These include the bronze "Antikythera Youth" (Inv. No. X. 13396) as well as the famous "Antikythera Mechanism" (Inv. No. X. 15087). For further details see the note in Medusa part 1, in the MFP People section.

In June 1907 Giorgos Sourdos, captain of the ship Sakolève, and his crew of Greek sponge divers discovered ancient Greek artefacts on the seabed off the coast of Mahdia, Tunisia. They subsequently worked from 1907 to 1913 with the French archaeologist Alfred Merlin (1876-1965), Director of Antiquities in the French Protectorate of Tunisia, to retrieve a large quantity of artworks and marble columns from what turned out to be the wreck of a Hellenistic period Greek merchant ship carrying Roman booty from Greece. This was the first ever underwater archaeological campaign, and the pioneering Greek divers worked under difficult and often dangerous conditions. The results earned fame for Merlin, who did not dive himself, as the founder of underwater archaeology, but the divers are rarely mentioned. The finds, now in the Bardo National Museum, Tunis, are thought to be part of the loot transported from Piraeus to Italy for the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla after he had sacked Athens in 86 BC.

3. Oppianos on sponge diving

"Of that of sponge gatherers there can not be worse work
for a man, I say, no work that brings with it more pain."

A sponge diver in ancient Greek was known as a sponge-cutter (σπογγοθήρας, spoggortheras).

Oppianos (Ὀππιανός; Latin, Oppianus), also referred to as Oppian of Anazarbus, of Corycus, or of Cilicia, was a Graeco-Roman poet in the 2nd century AD, during the reign of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son and co-emperor Commodus. He described the miserable and dangerous life of sponge divers in his 3500-line poem on fishing, Halieutika (Ἁλιευτικά), dedicated to the joint emperors. Marcus Aurelius is said to have been so delighted with the poems Oppianos dedicated to him that he gave him a piece of gold for each line.

See: Oppian, Halieutica, Book 5, lines 612-674. From Oppian, Colluthus, Tryphiodorus, Loeb Classical Library, 1928. At Bill Thayer's LacusCurtius: Into the Roman World, University of Chicago.

4. Skafandro

Skafandro (also known as scaphandre and skaphander) is an artificial word, which literally means human boat or boat-man, made up of the Greek words σκαφη (skaphe, boat) and ανδρος (andros, man). It was coined by the French priest, mathematician and inventor Abbé Jean-Baptiste de La Chapelle (circa 1710-1792) as the name for the swimming suit with a cork vest that he first invented in 1765. His book Traité de la construction théorique et pratique du scaphandre ou du bateau de l'homme (Treatise on the theoretical and practical construction of the scaphandre or human boat) was published in 1775, and translated into other languages soon after. The name was later applied to a variety of other swimming and diving suits, including the diving suit with a helmet into which air could be pumped via a hose, which was invented by Joseph-Martin Cabirol in 1855.
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Additional photos: © Konstanze Gundudis

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