2,500 years of sea-faring history revealed deep in the Black Sea
In 2015 The Black Sea MAP, one of the largest maritime archaeological projects ever staged, set out to investigate the changes in the ancient environment of the Black Sea region including the impact of sea level change following the last glacial cycle.
During its three field seasons, the Black Sea, not wholly unexpectedly, has unveiled 60 astonishingly well-preserved shipwrecks helping write the history of nearly 2500 years of seafaring tradition.
This assemblage must comprise one of the finest underwater museums of ships and seafaring in the world.
We dived on one wreck, a merchant vessel of the Byzantine period dating to the tenth century. It lies at a depth of 94m that puts it into the diving range so we took the opportunity to visually inspect certain structural features first hand (Figure 1).
The condition of this wreck below the sediment is staggering, the structural timber looks as good as new. This suggested 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.
In the course of the Black Sea MAP’s surveys, these wrecks have been unearthed using the latest robotic laser scanning, acoustic and photogrammetric techniques (Figure 2 and 3). The earliest found so far is from the Classical period around the 4th – 5th century BC.
Vessels have also been discovered from the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods spanning two and a half millennia.
This represents an unbroken pattern of trade and exchange, warfare and communication that reaches back into prehistory, and because of the anoxic conditions of the Black Sea (the lack of oxygen) below a certain depth, some of the wrecks survive in incredible condition.
Ships lie hundreds or thousands of metres deep with their masts still standing, rudders in place, cargoes of amphorae and ship’s fittings lying on deck, with carvings and tool marks as distinct as the day they were made by the shipwrights (Figure 4). Many of the ships show structural features, fittings and equipment that are only known from iconography or written description but never seen until now.
Our primary aims are focused on the later prehistory of the region and in particular on human response to major environmental change. We believe we now have an unparalleled archive of data with which to address these big questions about the human past.