WASHINGTON (September 13, 2000) — A National Geographic expedition led by Explorer-in-Residence Robert Ballard has discovered remnants of human habitation more than 300 feet below the surface of the Black Sea, approximately 12 miles off the Turkish shore. Evidence suggests these people must have thrived in a coastal setting before a catastrophic flood inundated the area many thousands of years ago.
This cataclysmic flood was tentatively linked to the biblical story of Noah by geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman of Columbia University in their 1999 book “Noah’s Flood.” Their theory of a great flood in the Black Sea was based on their discovery of a drowned landscape as seen in seismic profiles and sediment cores.
“This is an incredible find,” an excited Ballard said in a telephone call from the expedition ship to Terry Garcia, executive vice president of Mission Programs for the National Geographic Society. “Artifacts at the site are clearly well preserved, with carved wooden beams, wooden branches and stone tools collapsed amongst the mud matrix of the structure.”
The site is located 311 feet (95 meters) below sea level, and the extraordinary state of preservation of the wood and other organic materials of such great age is most likely due to the site’s proximity to the Black Sea’s deeper, oxygen-free waters.
“We discovered this structure very early into the expedition and we are now expanding our search into a larger area. We are going into the river valley in which we believe more people lived and we expect to make further discoveries.
“This is a work in progress. It is critical to know the exact era of the people who lived there, and to that end we hope to recover artifacts and wood for carbon dating so we can figure out what sort of people lived there and the nature of their tools,” said Ballard.
Fredrik Hiebert, chief archaeologist for the project from the University of Pennsylvania, said from the ship, “This find represents the first concrete evidence for the occupation of the Black Sea coast prior to its flooding. This is a major discovery that will begin to rewrite the history of cultures in this key area between Europe, Asia and the ancient Middle East.”
Turkey’s General Directorate of Monuments and Museums is involved in the expedition and has a representative on board the research vessel. General Director of Monuments and Museums Dr. Alpay Pasinli says Turkey is open to continued cooperation in mapping the site, which is within that country’s coastal waters.
Precise mapping and photodocumentation of the structure will continue during the five-week expedition.
Scientists theorize that the Black Sea was a freshwater lake until it was flooded by salt water from the Mediterranean Sea about 7,000 years ago. Ryan and Pitman’s research showed that today’s Black Sea was transformed when melting glaciers raised the level of the Mediterranean Sea, causing water to break its way through the strip of land separating the sea from the smaller freshwater lake.
According to Ryan and Pitman, the resulting cascade, many times the height and volume of Niagara Falls, carved out of solid rock the narrow channel now known as the Bosporus, the strait that separates the Mediterranean Sea from the Black Sea. The turbulent water pouring into the Black Sea would have widened the surface of the sea by as much as a mile a day, submerging the original shoreline and any settlements under hundreds of feet of salt water.
A team from National Geographic News is on the expedition vessel and will file regular updates. These will air on National Geographic EXPLORER on CNBC starting Sunday, Sept. 17, and on the National Geographic Channel outside the United States. Dispatches are being posted on the Web at nationalgeographic.com.
When the expedition is over, the complete story of the discovery will be told in a one-hour National Geographic SPECIAL on PBS and in 110 countries around the world on the National Geographic Channel. In-depth reports and updates on the expedition and follow-up research will be covered by “National Geographic Today,” a daily live newscast that will originate from a new digital studio located within the National Geographic campus, when the Channel launches in the United States in January 2001. National Geographic magazine will publish a first-person account by Bob Ballard of the expedition. Ballard is also authoring a new Society book, “Adventures in Ocean Exploration,” for release in April 2001.
Ballard, president of the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn., has made many significant underwater discoveries in his career. He is best known for finding the Titanic in 1985, and has tracked down numerous other significant shipwrecks, including the German battleship Bismarck, the lost fleet of Guadalcanal, and the U.S. aircraft carrier Yorktown, sunk in the Battle of Midway. His most recent discoveries include finds of sunken remains of ships along ancient Mediterranean trade routes and of two ancient Phoenician ships off Israel, the oldest shipwrecks ever found in deep water.
In addition to the National Geographic Society, supporters of the Black Sea expedition include the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the J.M. Kaplan Fund.
Expedition participants come from the Institute for Exploration, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Marr Vessel Management Ltd., Woods Hole Marine Systems Inc., the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.