World’s oldest intact shipwreck, suspended in time at the bottom of the Black Sea

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Situated at the southeastern extremity of Europe −bordered by Ukraine to the north, Russia to the northeast, Georgia to the east, Turkey to the south, and Bulgaria and Romania to the west− the roughly oval-shaped Black Sea is estimated to have a depth of about 7,250 ft or 2,210 m and spread across an area of 436,400 km2. These waters were always a major hub for trade, battle and empire building because of its strategic position between eastern and western Eurasian civilizations. For thousands of years, the Black Sea was traversed by merchants, pirates, and warriors. It occupies a large basin deliberately connected with the Mediterranean Sea through the Bosporus Strait, and then through the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles Strait. The Black Sea also links with the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Crete before meeting the Mediterranean. Despite the name that suggesting the colour of the waters, the Black Sea is not much different from the other seas in general, which waters are blue. The Black Sea has been popular not just because of its name that denotes a rather inhospitable nature, but also due to some features that are surprisingly unusual. Ancient mariners regarded the Black Sea as a difficult body of water to navigate since its shores were inhabited by savage tribes. Furthermore, the anoxic nature of the Black Sea water has also resulted in several scary rumours, making the sea infamous. However, as time passed, the image of the Black Sea, as one of the most difficult water bodies to navigate, has changed. As home to the rich and beautiful collection of flora and fauna and more than ten small islands, the Black Sea has now emerged as a popular tourist attraction of the world.

One of the most intriguing facts about the Black Sea is its anoxic water. Precisely, there is a significant absence of oxygen in the water. The Black Sea happens to be the world’s largest water body with a meromictic− or un-mixing− basin, which means the movement of water between the lower and upper layers of the sea is a rare phenomenon to find anywhere in the world. This makes a considerable temperature difference between these layers along with making the lower layers absolute free of oxygen and hence, inactive. At the same time, the Black Sea receives freshwater from its rivers and rainfall. However, the Black Sea only witness water transfer with the Mediterranean Sea. As the transfer takes place in the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, the inflow of dense water from the Mediterranean happens at the bottom of the basin, while the outflow of Black Sea surface water takes place near the surface of the basin. Since there is very low mixing between the two layers of the water in the Black Sea, marine life cannot survive (except those that do not require oxygen, such as anaerobic bacteria), however, the anoxic nature of the lower water layers of this sea makes the process of decomposition is negligibly slow. Oxygen levels drop to zero at depths of more than 150 meters, it does not reach the lower, saltier zone which creates the ideal environment for preservation. And is why the Black Sea has been called “the world’s biggest pickle jar.”

The Siren Vase in the British Museum- the shipwreck is believed to be a vessel similar to that shown bearing Odysseus -Photo British Museum

An international team of sailors and archaeologists −the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP) led by the Maritime Archaeology Center of the University of Southampton, UK− who were surveying the Black Sea to find out how prehistoric humans responded to rising sea levels came across something unexpected: a Greek merchant vessel on the seafloor dating back to about 400 B.C., which means it is more than 2,400 years old, the oldest known intact shipwreck ever discovered. The wooden cargo vessel was found more than 80km off the Bulgarian city of Burgas and 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 23m (75ft) wreck is closely resembled in design to that depicted by the so-called Siren Painter on the Siren Vase in the British Museum. Dating back several decades earlier than the shipwreck (around 480 BC), the vase shows Odysseus strapped to the mast as his ship sails past three mythical sea nymphs whose tune was thought to drive sailors to their deaths. The vessel discovery is the first of its kind ever seen, contemporary scholars had never before seen such a complete example. It is hoped that it will provide new understanding about trading activities of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The team reportedly said they intended to leave the vessel where it was found but added that a small piece had been carbon dated by the University of Southampton and claimed the results that confirming the discovery as the oldest intact shipwreck known to mankind. As yet, the ship’s cargo remains unknown, and the team has not released its exact location to preserve it from looters.

The team were studying a period about 12,000 years ago, when the Black Sea was bigger and wider. A period that ultimately contributed to the preservation of the wreckages. They began in 2015 and had spent three years exploring the depths of the Black Sea using two Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) equipped with a special underwater camera with a remote-control system. The camera can provide ultra-high-definition images from more than two kilometres below the surface. It uses the latest 3D imaging techniques to capture stunning images of the sunken artifacts. This advanced technology makes it possible to capture spectacular images without disturbing the ocean floor. The explorations also uncovered a graveyard of ancient shipwrecks: more than 60 sunken ships spread over some 2,000 square km. The shipwrecks date from various eras from 2,500 years of maritime history, including Byzantine, Ottoman empires, Roman merchant ships and a 17th-century battle fleet of Cossack, a group of people who had by that time settled north of the Black Sea, near the border of modern Russia and Ukraine. Most of the wrecks were laying at depths of more than 150 meters, and some were located at a depth of 2,200 meters below the surface. Despite the centuries, all of the shipwrecks have all survived in remarkable condition. Ship parts such as wood, rope reels, rudders, cash drawers, and even carved wooden ornaments have remained intact. Professor Jon Adams, leader of the research team, said that all the ships appeared to have sunk in the storm, not due to fighting or pirates. Some of these ships used to serve as transporters of wine, grain, metals, wood, and other commodities. But there were some ships that Adams called “oar-powered Cossack pirate ships.” While historical texts and illustrations will provide information on the appearance and construction of ships from various ages, Adams hopes the extraordinary preservation of these ships will enable archaeologists to independently verify the historical records. In addition to dozens of shipwrecks, the researchers excavated the remains of an early Bronze Age settlement at Ropotamo in Bulgaria, near what was the ancient shoreline when the sea level was much lower than today. As the waters rose, the settlement was abandoned and now the remains of house timbers, hearths and ceramics lie 2.5 metres below the seabed.

The team was releasing a documentary on its findings at the British Museum, offering a glimpse into what archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert called “an incredibly rich museum of human history.” He also said that “This wreck shows the unprecedented potential for preservation in the Black Sea, which has been a critical crossroads of world cultures for thousands of years.”

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