More than a mile below the surface of the Black Sea, researchers have found a ship so old they never expected to see one like it.
The members of the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project successfully radiocarbon dated a small piece of the ship to 400 BC. That makes this the oldest intact shipwreck ever discovered.
“A ship, surviving intact, from the Classical world, lying in over 2 kilometers of water, is something I would never have believed possible,” said University of Southampton professor Jon Adams, the Black Sea MAP’s principal investigator. “This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.”
The ship was a Greek trading vessel, which researchers matched to ancient Greek pottery like the “Siren Vase,” on display at the British Museum.
“There are ships down there that have never been seen apart from in murals and paintings and in books, and this is the first time they have been seen since they were afloat,” said Edward Parker, CEO of Black Sea MAP.
Over the last three years, the global group of researchers have used remotely operated underwater vehicle surveyors, equipped with high-resolution cameras, flashes and lasers to map the floor of the Black Sea. The kind of technology they used has previously only been available for oil, gas and renewable energy companies.
“The purpose of the entire project is to study sea level rise throughout the past 10,000 years through the perspective of human societies that lived along the shores of the Black Sea and the way that humans reacted to a changing environment,” said Dragomir Garbov, team member and maritime archaeologist at the Centre for Underwater Archaeology. “We have discovered fantastic evidence for seafaring in the Black Sea.”
Overall, they have found more than 60 shipwrecks, including a 17th-century Cossack raiding fleet and Roman trading vessels still laden with goods. The ships that sank here are from multiple locations because of trade routes.
The Greek ship is remarkably well-preserved because the depths of the Black Sea lack oxygen.
“We have a complete vessel with the mast still standing with the quarter rudders in place,” said team member Kroum Batchvarov, assistant professor of maritime archaeology at the University of Connecticut’s anthropology department and the Maritime Studies Program. “It is [an] incredible find. The first of its kind ever. We even have the coils of rope still as the bosun left them in the stern when the ship went down.”
They were even able to recover medieval rope from a ship.
“We’re talking entirely preserved shipwrecks that literally look as if they had sunk yesterday,” Garbov said. “We’re looking at a snapshot of a moment in time, probably as long as a thousand years ago. We’re looking at the last moment in the life of a ship.”
The ship itself will stay on the sea floor, where it can remain preserved. The data gathered by the remotely operated underwater vehicles was sent to 3-D printers, which were able to create a small-scale replica of the wreck. This will enable future generations with even better technology to use their skills to learn even more about the ship, according to Dani Newman, the team’s primary science mentor.
“This shows how amazing our maritime heritage is,” Newman said. “It really is the story of all of us, of how we got to where we are in this world.”
But the team has found more than just ships, including an early Bronze Age settlement at Ropotamo in Bulgaria, which is now more than 8 feet below the seabed itself. When the sea level was lower, this would have been the ancient shoreline — likely abandoned when the water rose. House timbers, ceramics and hearths were found.
“We’ve discovered where the Paleo landscape was in about 9000 BC,” Parker said. “That’s where men and women were living, and now its buried under the sea.”
The team believes what they can learn from these ships could fill in some of history’s gaps.
“We the archaeologists are in the role of Sherlock Holmes,” said Batchvarov. “We’re gathering the clues, and the more accurately we gather them and the relationship between the clues, the more probable it is for us to reverse-engineer what happened.”