Mysterious Ancient Ship Graveyard Discovered in Black Sea

The Black Sea – connecting Southeastern Europe and Western Asia – was called the Inhospitable Sea prior to ancient Greek colonization because it was so difficult to navigate. That reputation was reinforced recently when researchers found a mysterious collection of 41 perfectly preserved ancient shipwrecks in an aptly named ‘dead zone’ on the bottom of the Black Sea. Why did it hospitably protect these boats whose inhospitable deaths it caused?

The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project had been using its two Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to scan the ‘dead zone’ for a different purpose, according to project investigator Jon Adams of the University of Southampton’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology.

The primary focus of this project is to carry out geophysical surveys to detect former land surfaces buried below the current sea bed, take core samples and characterise and date them, and create a palaeoenvironmental reconstruction of Black Sea prehistory.

ROV over shipwreck

ROV over shipwreck

The crew of the Stril Explorer controlling the ROVs was looking for clues as to why water levels rose so quickly in the area after the last Ice Age. That information could better prepare us for the rising water levels caused by climate change. The discovery of the shipwrecks was a bonus, says Adams, and  their mysterious preservation is a direct result of the ‘dead zone.’

They are astonishingly preserved due to the anoxic conditions (absence of oxygen) of the Black Sea below 150 metres.

The Black Sea

The Black Sea

The dead zone of anoxic water lies from a depth of 150 meters to the seabed at 1800 meters (5,900 ft) where one of the ROVs, the Surveyor Interceptor, set new records for depth and sustained speed of over six knots (7 mph/11 kmph). The speedy ROV is equipped with lights, high definition cameras and a laser scanner (the other also has a 3D camera) that were key to finding the shipwreck graveyard.

An image of a Black Sea ship[wreck recreated using the sophisticated technology of the POV

An image of a Black Sea shipwreck recreated using the sophisticated technology of the ROVs

It’s believed many of the vessels date back to the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires when the Black Sea was highly used for commercial shipping until 1453 whet the Ottoman Turks stopped foreign vessels from using it. Now that the ships have been found, the next step is to loot them.

The stern of a shipwreck from the Ottoman era

The stern of a shipwreck from the Ottoman era

Just kidding, although that’s usually what happens. Adams hopes the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project gives an alternative to studying ancient shipwrecks without having to disturb them or destroy them by bringing the remains to the surface. He plans to start with further study of the Black Sea graveyard.

Using the latest 3-D recording technique for underwater structures, we’ve been able to capture some astonishing images without disturbing the sea bed. Maritime archaeology in the deep sea has often been a contested domain, but this project, the largest of its type ever undertaken, demonstrates how effective partnerships between academia and industry can be, especially when funded by enlightened bodies such as EEF (Expedition and Education Foundation).

Enlightened bodies … it’s nice to know there’s still some of them around.