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Oldest Intact Shipwreck Discovered in the Black Sea

The Greek merchant vessel similar to those found on ancient pottery was carbon dated to 400 B.C.

(BLACK SEA MAP/EEF EXPEDITIONS)
smithsonian.com

Archaeologists know quite a bit about ancient ship design from the classical world since the Greeks liked to decorate their pottery with images of impressive wooden military vessels and cargo ships that plied the Mediterranean sea for centuries. Except for a few precious remnants of wood, however, the vessels themselves are long gone. But researchers in the Black Sea have uncovered something incredible.

Kevin Rawlinson at The Guardian reports that the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP) has discovered an Greek merchant vessel on the floor of the sea dating back to about 400 B.C., the oldest known intact shipwreck ever discovered.

The MAP team discovered the ship 50 miles off the coast of Bulgaria. Because the water in the lower reaches of the Black Sea is anoxic, or lacks oxygen, the wooden cargo vessel has not deteriorated much since it sunk to the bottom of the ocean all those centuries ago. Its mast, rudders, the cargo in its hold and even the benches where rowers sat are still well-preserved.

The ship was discovered during a three-year-long project. Over that time, the team located 60 vessels, using advanced laser scanning and photogrammetry to create 3D images of the ships. The 75-foot Greek ship was discovered during the final phase of the mission in the summer of 2017. A small piece of wood was recovered from the wreck and radiocarbon dated, confirming its 2,400-year-old pedigree.

“A ship, surviving intact, from the Classical world, lying in over 2 km [1.2 miles] of water, is something I would never have believed possible,” archaeologist Jon Adams of the University of Southampton and principal investigator for the Black Sea MAP project says in a press release. “This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.”

The ship is believed to be a trading vessel similar to a merchant ship depicted on the Siren Vase held at the British Museum. The vase, which dates to around the same time as the ship, is an image of the hero Odysseus lashed to the mast in order to resist the song of the Sirens, who mythology says used their hypnotic song to lure sailors into shipwrecking on their rocky island.

The purpose of Black Sea MAP wasn’t primarily to find shipwrecks. Instead, the crew was interested in using the latest high-tech mapping technology to investigate the seabed and understand how sea level has changed in the body of water since the last ice age. The radar, however, also pinpointed the sites of ships from 2,500 years of maritime history, including Roman ships, Greek ships, Cossack raiding vessels and others. The team also found a Bronze Age settlement at Ropotamo in Bulgaria in a sheltered harbor that was often used by Greek, Ottoman and Byzantine sailors.

While the ships are usually covered in sediment, their masts and shapes are still often visible with the naked eye and the sonar and laser scans reveal even more details.

“It’s like another world,” maritime archaeologist and MAP expedition member Helen Farr tells the BBC. “It’s when the ROV [remote operated vehicle] drops down through the water column and you see this ship appear in the light at the bottom so perfectly preserved it feels like you step back in time.”

There are no plans to salvage the Greek ship since it is extremely fragile, and the team has not released its exact location to preserve it from looters. The team will present a paper and more technical details on the find later this week.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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