Four Roman-era shipwrecks, including one elaborately hand-carved wooden vessel, have been discovered in the depths of the Black Sea, members of a National Geographic expedition announced Thursday.
Researchers said the ships were preserved by a lack of oxygen in the deep sea that lies just north of Turkey.
One ship is almost perfectly preserved, according to Cheryl Ward, a nautical archaeologist at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, who took part in the expedition. “We thought it couldn’t possibly be ancient,” she says of the ship, which measures 45 feet in length, with a 35-foot-tall wooden mast sticking up from floor of sea.
“No archaeologist has ever been able to study anything like this,” she said at a news conference. “We’ve never been able to look at the deck of an ancient ship.”
Ancient shipwrecks are usually in bad shape when they are discovered, according to Robert Ballard, the expedition’s leader, who also discovered the Titanic and the German battleship the Bismarck. In many bodies of water, tiny animals called wood bores quickly eat away any uncovered portion of a wooden shipwreck, often leaving the cargo stacked on the sea bottom after the ship has been consumed.
Black Sea Chemistry
But 650 feet below the surface of the Black Sea, there is no oxygen in the water for the wood bores to breathe, says Ballard.
He compared the sea to a giant bathtub, with steep sides and no drain. Because the water of the Black Sea is very still, oxygen doesn’t circulate to the bottom. The Black Sea, he says, is the perfect environment for preserving shipwrecks. The researchers predict there are perhaps hundreds still to be found.
Ward says the well-preserved ship comes from a time, 1,500 years ago, when ships were custom-made to order. The ships were designed “skin-first,” she says, and the inside of the ship was filled in later.
No cargo was visible near the wreck site of the ship with the mast, so the vessel’s purpose remains unknown, say researchers.
The Grave of Three Ships
The three other vessels were probably trading ships from the Roman/Byzantine era, say researchers. The three other shipwrecks lie close together on the bottom of the Black Sea, at a depth of about 330 feet, between the oxygen-rich water near the surface and the oxygen-deprived water on the bottom.
All three ships contain huge amounts of terra cotta pots, the kind that were used to transport wine, olive oil and honey in ancient times. The long, carrot-like shape of some of the pots (see top photo) was typical of pottery from Sinop, Turkey, which borders the Black Sea to the south.
Earlier Black Sea Find
The shipwreck discovery follows the find of an underwater archaeological site in the Black Sea. In September, members of the expedition found part of a wooden building, 12 miles off the coast of Turkey, with a few scattered wooden tools, originally thought to be stone, that may date to more than 7,000 years ago.
Some scientists have speculated that the origins of stories about a great flood, including the one in the Bible, may have come from the flooding of the area after the end of the last Ice Age, when water levels as glaciers melted.
Whether scientists find clues to such stories or not, Ballard believes the waters of the Black Sea present the best hope of learning more about ancient mariners and the societies they lived in.
“The Black Sea probably has more preserved history, in great detail, than any other place in the world,” he says.
But he worries that his announcement of such discoveries will also put them at risk. He has called for same protection of underwater archaeological sites as exists for those on land. “The treasure hunters will be right on our heels,” he warns.