It’s late 2017, and the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project team are exploring the seafloor using the most advanced technology. This is the third year in which the team have worked in the Black Sea off the Bulgarian coast. And while they’ve previously discovered the remains of some 60 wrecks, now they find a shipwreck that stands out from all the others. It’s a truly unique and astonishing discovery.
Run by the University of Southampton in England, the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (Black Sea MAP) involves an international team of scientists. And interestingly, when the project first started in 2015, searching for ancient sunken vessels wasn’t even on the team’s agenda. No, their initial aim was to study the impacts of sea level and climate changes since the last ice age.
But more recently, as the scientists explored the seabed using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), they came across more and more astonishingly well-preserved sunken ships. In fact, during their first season of exploration in 2016, the researchers discovered a staggering 44 wrecks from a range of eras on the seafloor.
Talking about the revelations, Jon Adams, director of the University of Southampton’s Center for Maritime Archaeology, spoke to Smithsonian magazine in November 2016. He said, “The wrecks are a complete bonus, but a fascinating discovery, found during the course of our extensive geophysical surveys.” Discoveries included a probable Venetian trading vessel dating to the 1200s or 1300s and a ship from the Ottoman era.
“Using the latest 3D recording technique for underwater structures, we’ve been able to capture some astonishing images without disturbing the seabed,” Adams continued. “We are now among the very best exponents of this practice methodology, and certainly no one has achieved models of this completeness on shipwrecks at these depths.”
The team work from a research vessel, the Stril Explorer, which had been previously used in the oil business. And the ship is equipped with some of the most technologically advanced survey kit – tech restricted until recently to oil and gas companies. The vessel also has two ROVs on board: the Supporter and the Surveyor Interceptor.
The Supporter allows the researchers to capture both high-quality 3D video and still images. The Surveyor Interceptor, meanwhile, is a new-generation ROV, and it’s seriously rapid. Yes, this second ROV speeds through the water at up to three times the velocity of older models. The Surveyor Interceptor’s equipment includes instruments for making geophysical observations and capturing high-definition images; it also has a laser scanner. And the craft itself can dive to a depth of around 5,900 feet.
The team were extremely well equipped, then, to explore the depths of the Black Sea. And yet there’s another key factor that helped them to find all those very old yet incredibly well-preserved shipwrecks. You see, it’s the particular environment of this sea that creates the conditions that in turn ensure the sunken ships don’t rot away to nothing.
Adams explained this phenomenon to National Geographic in 2016. “When the last ice age ended about 12,000 years ago, the Black Sea was really the Black Lake,” he said. But as temperatures increased, salty seawater began to travel along the Bosphorus Strait from the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea. Before that, only freshwater rivers had flowed into the sea.
This mixing of saltwater and freshwater in turn caused separate layers to form in the Black Sea. Explaining the knock-on effect of this, Adams said, “The oxygen drops to zero below 150 meters, which is ideal for the preservation of organic materials.” And it’s this oxygen-free environment that creates the perfect medium for preserving ancient ships’ timber and other maritime artifacts.
In fact, the chisel scrapings and tool impressions made centuries ago by the shipbuilders can still be clearly seen on some of the ships that the Black Sea MAP team have discovered. Also present on some of the wrecks are rigging ropes, rudders with their tills and ornate wooden carving.
And by 2017, after three seasons of exploration, the number of vessels that the team had come across had increased to 60. That year, Adams told the International Business Times, “This assemblage must comprise one of the finest underwater museums of ships and seafaring in the world. Black Sea MAP now draws towards the end of its third season… discovering over 20 new wreck sites, some dating to the Byzantine, Roman and Hellenistic periods.”
While speaking to Smithsonian magazine in 2017, Adams further explained, “We dived on one wreck: a merchant vessel of the Byzantine period dating to the tenth century. It lies at a depth of 93 meters. This puts [the vessel] into the diving range, so we took the opportunity to visually inspect certain structural features first-hand.”
And what the team found when some of them dived down was exciting indeed. As Adams revealed, “The condition of this wreck below the sediment is staggering, [since] the structural timber looks as good as new. This suggested [that] far older wrecks must exist. And, indeed, even in the few days since the dive, we have discovered three wrecks considerably older – including one from the Hellenistic period and another that may be older still.”
The ship that Adams thought “may be older still” was indeed dated to an earlier period than the Byzantine vessel’s era. And in October 2018 the results of carbon testing on the craft were announced; the findings suggested, in fact, that the ship has rested on the seabed for considerably longer than two millennia.
Researchers believe that this particular wreck – found using an ROV at a depth of 1.2 miles – was Greek. Apparently, it too had been a merchant vessel. And given the craft’s age and exceptional condition, it’s the oldest shipwreck to have ever been found in one piece.
In fact, the 75-foot ship still has its rowing benches and rudder – and there’s even stowed cargo. Speaking to the BBC, Helen Farr, one of the Black Sea MAP team, said, “It’s like another world. It’s when the ROV drops down through the water column, and you see this ship appear in the light at the bottom. [The vessel] is so perfectly preserved [that] it feels like you [have stepped] back in time.”
Furthermore, the ship appears to be similar to one whose image was painted onto a Greek vase that is now owned by the British Museum. The vase originates from about 480 BC, and it depicts Odysseus tied to his ship’s mast so that he won’t be tempted by the three Sirens. The Sirens were, of course, sea nymphs who sent incautious mariners to their deaths, according to Greek mythology.
While speaking to Sky News in 2018, another member of the Black Sea MAP team, Dr. Kroum Batchvarov, said, “This is an incredible find. The first of its kind ever. We have [a] complete vessel, with the masts still standing [and] with the quarter rudders in place.” The ship is thought to have plied the trading route between the Greek outposts on the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
But we’ll leave the last words to expedition leader Adams. He revealed in an October 2018 statement, “A ship surviving intact from the classical world, lying in over 2 kilometers [1.2 miles] of water, is something I would never have believed possible. This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.”