Black Sea Starts to Yield a Rich Ancient History

By Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post, Monday 20 January 2003; Page A10

The ship had a cargo hold filled with ceramic jars, some—and perhaps all—of them filled with salt fish. It probably left from a seaport in what is now Turkey and sailed northwest through the Black Sea to the Crimea to pick up its load.

Then, for unknown reasons, it sank in 275 feet of water off the present-day Bulgarian coast, coming softly to rest on a carpet of mud.

Last week, archaeologists announced they had found the long-lost vessel. Sunk sometime between 490 B.C. and 280 B.C., it is the oldest wreck ever found in the Black Sea.

It is also the latest find in an ambitious effort to unlock the secrets of a unique body of water whose oxygen-free abyss may conceal a ghostly museum of intact shipwrecks spanning much of human history.

The Black Sea project was begun in 1997 to explore the consequences of an apocalyptic flood 7,500 years ago that transformed a freshwater lake into a sterile salt sea undisturbed by the shipworms and other sea creatures that consume wooden ships. Many scholars and scientists suggest that the flood may have inspired the biblical story of Noah.

In spectacular findings in 1999 and 2000, the archaeological team led by explorer-oceanographer Robert D. Ballard discovered the preflood coastline, detected what it described as a barn-sized building that had collapsed on an ancient headland, and photographed an elegantly preserved Byzantine ship resting 1,000 feet below the sea's surface.

Their early work essentially proved a theory advanced by two Columbia University scientists that the Black Sea was formed at the close of the last ice age, when glacial melt water caused sea levels to rise until they breached what is now the Bosporus, sending the waters of the Mediterranean cascading into the Black Sea basin.

The saltwater, denser than the existing freshwater lake, plunged to the bottom of the bowl and stayed there, leaving the lake water to float on top ever since. Once the existing marine life had consumed the oxygen in the floodwaters, it died, smothered by the freshwater blanket.

The project's early discoveries all happened off the Turkish coast near the port city of Sinop, a critical Black Sea commercial center far back into ancient times.

Sinop is 180 miles due south of the Crimea, and team archaeologist Fredrik T. Hiebert, from the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that the lure of larger profits would have caused ancient mariners to eschew coast-hugging in favor of the riskier straight shot over the Black Sea's 6,000-foot-deep abyss. Along that route, he theorized, the team would find an archaeological treasure trove.

But here's the problem, Ballard said in an interview. The Anatolian Fault runs along the coast of Turkey, and the underwater landscape off Sinop features big walls of mud and avalanches that spread along the bottom from past earthquakes and tremors, burying whatever lay below.

For this reason, the team last year shifted northwestward toward Bulgaria and the Crimea, which is passive geologically and has a much gentler slope to the sea bottom. It also has an oozy silt blanket laid down by the ancient Don, Dnieper and Danube rivers that offers a soft landing to anything that sinks into it.

Funded principally by the National Geographic Society, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Ballard's Mystic, Conn.-based Institute for Exploration, the Black Sea project team and the Bulgarian Institute of Oceanology last year used a manned Bulgarian submarine to investigate promising locations near the port of Varna.

When the Bulgarians found amphorae at one of the sites, the team knew it had found an ancient shipwreck. Amphorae were tall ceramic jars used by the Greeks and Romans to carry olive oil and other comestibles.

At a water depth of only 275 feet, however, there was no sign of the ship's wooden hull, which had been eaten by shipworms. Still, the team was optimistic that much of the shipwreck may remain intact where it had been covered with mud.

This was because the Black Sea does not suddenly shift 600 feet below the surface from fully oxygenated water to sterility.

From the surface to 200 feet, the water is fully oxygenated, Ballard said. From 200 to 600 feet is a mixed layer, while everything below 600 is dead as a doornail. The collapsed building—with a lot of uneaten wood around it—was found at 311 feet.

This could signify that the northern coast—with an ancient flood plain extending 70 miles into the present-day Black Sea, may be rife with half-eaten and near-pristine wrecks.

In fact, said Dwight Coleman, chief scientist for last year's expedition, we could see some evidence of wood at the wreck site off Varna, and there is at least one more layer of amphorae stored out of sight in the oxygen-free mud that cloaks the rest of the sunken ship.

The team recovered one amphora from the wreck and sent sediments from it to Hiebert at Penn for dating and identification. Zoologists looked at the bones that were inside and found they were from freshwater catfish caught in the northern part of the Black Sea, he said. Knife marks showed that the fish had been sliced into steaks, then probably salted for shipping.

Hiebert said the ancient Greeks ate massive amounts of imported salt fish, known as tarichos.

The amphora looks like it came from the south coast, so we can hypothesize a route, Hiebert said. They started [in Turkey], went north to collect the fish, then went west, probably sailing for the Bosporus when they sank. We're getting a chance to see how the Black Sea integrates into the classical world.

The team will find out what else lies below this summer, when it returns to the wreck with a new unmanned submersible outfitted with two grapplers and the imaging capability to draw the wreck in three dimensions even as it dredges it.

We won't know the origin of the ship until we enter the crew's quarters and find artifacts, Ballard said. We plan to do this. What's unique about the Black Sea is the high state of preservation. Ultimately, we may even recover crew members.