The Black Sea keeps in excellent condition a lot of sunken ships

Back in 1976, the oceanographer Willard Bascom in his book “Deep waters, ancient ships” called the Black Sea unique in comparison with all other seas of the planet, the most promising place for research and historical discoveries.

In our time, thanks to the rapid development of underwater research technologies, the “prediction” of Bascom began to come true. However, no one expected any special surprises from the international Black Sea Maritime Project, which began in 2015 and ended just a few days ago. Initially, the planned work had no relation to archeology, but in the course of research, scientists even had to add the word “archaeological”, the Black Sea Maritime Archaeological Project, or The Black Sea MAP into the project name.

The primary objective of the project was laser scanning of the seabed with the help of remote-controlled underwater vehicles (TPA) in the territorial waters of Bulgaria, as well as extraction of bottom sediment cores to study changes in the ecology of the region and fluctuations in sea level from the last ice age. It does not sound very exciting and, if it were not for an unexpected “bonus”, only the readers of highly specialized publications would have learned about the discoveries made during the work.

However, as early as 2015, laser scanners and 3D images obtained with their help began to show unusual “pictures”, namely – perfectly preserved remains of ancient wrecks. Such a “bonus” could not be ignored. Geophysical monitoring has unexpectedly turned into the “largest marine archaeological project of all time”: in the first two years, scientists discovered in the study area the remains of 44 ships, this year – more than twenty.

The detailed three-dimensional images, studied by specialists, made it possible to determine the origin and type of many ships: the chronology of the finds covers 2500 years of history of navigation and shipbuilding. Most of the ships are Ottoman, many Roman and Byzantine, the oldest found – Greek, sunk in the Black Sea in the IV-V century BC.


Photogrammetric model of the Ottoman ship of the XVII-XIX centuries. Photo: EEF / Black Sea MAP

“The third and final season of the Black Sea MAP project is coming to an end. This year we surveyed more than 1,300 square meters. km of seabed, took 100 meters of soil samples and discovered new shipwrecks – more than 20 vessels of the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods. Such a variety of finds can be called one of the greatest underwater museums of navigation and shipbuilding, “Jon Adams, a professor at the University of Southampton and leading researcher of The Black Sea MAP, told The International Business Times.

Processing a huge data set takes a long time: creating a single photogrammetric model of a ship even super-modern computers takes days and even weeks. While the scientists presented only one preliminary image of the ship found in 2017 (all other “photos” of sunken ships refer to 2016): this is a Roman galley, lying at a relatively shallow depth – scientists were able to examine it with their own eyes and even lift a few artifacts.


Preliminary photogrammetric model of the Roman galleys, found in 2017. Photo: Black Sea MAP

The geophysical project was completed, but threw the work to archaeologists for many years to come. Remains of ancient ships, of course, are not uncommon, and with the modern possibilities of underwater archeology, ancient ships find literally “packs”, whole cemeteries – such as dozens of ancient ships off the coast of the Greek archipelago Fourni or near the Greek island of Delos. Since 2012, underwater excavations have resumed on the site of the most intriguing shipwreck in the history of the Antikitersky (news on the results of the archaeological season of 2017 is expected soon).

What is so special about the Black Sea finds, if highly experienced scientists speak of them with undisguised ecstasy? “We have never seen anything like this. Like the millennia of history come to life in front of us, “are the words of marine archaeologist Krum Bachvarov from the University of Connecticut. “We could not believe our eyes,” said Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz, a marine archaeologist at the University of Southampton.

The thing is in the very uniqueness of the Black Sea, about which Willard Bascom wrote. The fact, in general, is well-known, however, we recall: the characteristic feature of the Black Sea is the complete absence of life at depths of more than 150-200 m – from these marks an anoxic (anoxic) environment begins, in which only some anaerobic bacteria can exist.

Once the Black Sea was a “Black Lake”, that is, a freshwater pond. About 12,000 years ago, salty water from the Mediterranean began to flow into the lake through the Bosporus Strait, but a huge influx of fresh water did not go away: the great rivers of Eastern Europe – the Danube, the Dnieper, the Dniester and, through the Azov Sea, the Don – flow into the Black Sea. As a result, layers of varying degrees of salinity have formed, which do not mix with each other: the so-called “active” layer of less saline Black Sea water with good internal metabolism and oxygen saturation always remains above, while the more “salty” and heavy Mediterranean water “settles”, where in As a result of biochemical reactions, oxygen is replaced by hydrogen sulfide.

The anoxic environment is characteristic of deep ocean depressions and is quite rare in the seas – oxygen-free areas are noted in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Baltic, Caspian, Mediterranean seas, but the Black Sea remains the most striking example of this natural phenomenon: an oxygen-free, unsuitable environment here begins at a depth 150-200 m at a maximum depth of the sea of ​​2212 meters.

Dark picture – neither you fish, nor underwater vegetation … However for archeologists this means that the ships sunk in antiquity rest on the seabed in full, hitherto unprecedented preservation: the total absence of oxygen prevents the decomposition of organic matter.

In the material about another unique find – the bones of the Antikiterskiy man – we told how aggressive the natural marine environment is: it has been “eating up human remains” for several hundred years, and the statues raised from the Antikietersky ship openly demonstrate what seawater can do with prolonged contact with marble.


Exhibition in the Athenian Archaeological Museum: marble statues from the Antikythersky ship. Only those parts of the statues that were immersed in the sand survived. Photo by: namuseum.gr

Places of ancient shipwrecks often represent not majestic lying on the bottom of the skeletons of wooden vessels, but the heaping up of their cargoes – for example, ceramic amphoras or bronze statues, to which even the sea water does not care. The ships found in the Black Sea and the artefacts raised from them look completely different: the dead waters proved to be an ideal “time capsule” that preserved even organic matter.

“At a depth of 93 meters we discovered a Byzantine merchant ship of the 10th century. This depth allows you to go down to the crash site and examine it with your own eyes, which we did. The state of the ship, partially covered with sand, is simply amazing – the carcass tree and plating looks like new! We assumed that there might be remains of other, more ancient ships nearby, and they were not mistaken. A few days later we found three more sunken ships, one of which we dated Hellenistic period, and the latter was even older, “said John Adams.

Researchers rarely had the opportunity to personally descend to the found ships, mainly they used the equipment intended for this: the latest TPA, including the unique Surveyor Interceptor, advanced laser scanning and photogrammetry technologies. In addition to the impressive three-dimensional images lying on the bottom of the vessels, scientists even managed to print out their smaller copies on a 3D printer.


Participant of the expedition Dani Newman with a reduced three-dimensional model of one of the sunken ships. Frame from the video Black Sea MAP

Judging by the images obtained, over the past centuries, ships on the seabed retained their steering wheels and masts; in their holds still untouched goods, on some ships even ropes survived. The dead depths of the Black Sea provided the ships with a truly eternal rest.

“I was speechless,” recalls Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz the moment when the image of an Ottoman ship appeared on the monitors. – I saw the ropes and did not believe my eyes. I still do not believe that this is possible. ”


The carved tiller of the Ottoman ship and the remnants of the ship’s ropes. Photo: Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz / Rodrigo Ortiz / Black Sea MAP

The remains of ships lying on the seabed are a golden vein for archaeologists and historians: among goods sunk together with ships there may be objects that are completely unknown to modern scientists, either known only from descriptions of ancient authors or from pictures in old books.

For example, in the autumn of 2016, archaeologists identified one of the ships as a Venetian kog (cocha, or “round ship”) of the 13th-14th centuries. Structurally, such ships were the forerunners of the ships of the XV-XVI century, the caravel and the science of Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco da Gama and other great seafarers who pushed the boundaries of the world and laid the foundation for the era of the Great Geographical Discoveries.

“Thriller, a real thriller. We looked at the images of this ship for six hours. We must understand: no one has seen anything like this before. Of course, we know about them – in the Venetian documents of the XV century, images and descriptions of earlier ships remained. But no one had seen them before with their own eyes, we were the first, “recalled Krum Bachvarov. Even with the findings of this year, the Venetian kog of the 13th-14th centuries is widely believed to be the most valuable discovery for the entire duration of the project.

Traditionally transported along the Black Sea trade routes was the demanded “commodity assortment” – grain, furs, horses, oil, clothes and fabrics, wine and slaves. The Black Sea connected Europe with the northern sections of the Great Silk Road – so came to Europe the Black Death, the greatest plague epidemic that changed the history of the continent: from the Gobi Desert, rats infected with plague rods reached the Crimea, from which they spread throughout Europe on merchant ships. But before and after the tragedy, the Black Sea remained the northern gate of the Great Silk Road, opening Europeans access to luxury goods, including silk, satin, amber, spirits, spices and precious stones.

However, this list is far from exhaustive, authoritative marine archaeologist Brendan P. Foley (Brendan P. Foley), who has been engaged in excavations at Antikythera in recent years: he is well versed in the archaeological “exclusivity”.

“Judging by the excellent condition of the ships themselves, the goods in their holds could also well survive. Perhaps, among them will be books, parchments, other written documents … Who knows how many such goods were transported by merchants? Now at least it’s possible to find out, and it’s amazing, “Fowley said in an interview with NYTimes.


A beautifully preserved wooden detail of the Roman galleys raised from the bottom of the Black Sea. Photo: Black Sea MAP

Scientists do not disclose the coordinates of wrecks to protect them from potential robbers: sad incidents are not uncommon even in underwater archeology. Any publicly available information on valuable finds attracts marauders – sometimes one post in social networks is enough, as in the case with the oldest skeleton of the Americas: amateur divers found it in an underwater cave, posted a photo of an unexpected find in the social network – and a couple of days the remains disappeared. The robbers left scientists with a single bone stuck in the stalagmite. Similarly, the sarcophagus with human remains, found near the coast of one of the Greek islands, disappeared without the oral “social network” of local residents.

On the other hand, ignorance of the coordinates of the finds can lead to their unintentional destruction. Pioneer in the study of Black Sea archeology, the famous American Robert Ballard (the man who found the “Titanic”) in 1999 began to explore the Black Sea waters of Turkey. Among the 26 found ancient ships, the most valuable was the so-called Eregli E, a Greek ship of the 4th century BC, which preserved all its cargo and even such an exceptional rarity as human remains. Archaeologists never had time to investigate it: the ship lay at a relatively shallow depth and was destroyed by nets of trawlers passing over it.

Despite the obvious value of the Black Sea finds, no one continues to talk about the continuation of archaeological research – such a large-scale project requires serious planning and no less serious investments. However, the preparation for fundraising has already begun: the British Black Sea documentary filmmaking team has participated in The Black Sea MAP project, which will soon present a fascinating film about the work of the expedition and its sensational findings. And it’s not only ancient ships, but also ancient settlements that turned out to be under water because of the rising level of the Black Sea. Recall that the research was conducted in the territorial waters of Bulgaria – due to their geographical location, these lands and waters have always been very popular among invited and uninvited “guests”. The study of the history of this region can provide invaluable information about the past of all mankind, which has repeatedly confirmed the findings of land archaeologists.

The Black Sea MAP project has brought together leading scientists from all over the world, oceanographers and marine archeology specialists from Great Britain (Southampton University), Bulgaria (Center for Underwater Archeology), Sweden (University of Sodertern), USA (University of Connecticut) and Greece (Institute for Oceanography under the Greek center of marine research). Researchers hope that the outstanding results of the three-year work of The Black Sea MAP will attract to participation in future projects other countries, whose banks are washed by the amazing and mysterious Black Sea – in addition to Bulgaria and Turkey, this is Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Georgia and Abkhazia.