Nov. 3 -- 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.