WASHINGTON — Scientists working with Robert Ballard to explore the Black Sea have found the oldest shipwreck ever discovered there.
Newly completed radiocarbon analysis shows that the ship, possibly a trading vessel, went down off the coast of present-day Bulgaria sometime between the 5th and 3rd centuries B.C., the period of the Greek city-states. The dates come from analysis of the bones of catfish found inside one of the clay amphorae that made up the ship’s cargo.
The expedition, which took place in July and early August of 2002, was part of the Black Sea Program led by underwater explorer Ballard, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and president of the Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. Dwight Coleman of the Institute for Exploration served as chief scientist on the expedition, teaming up with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences Institute for Oceanology and the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.
The expedition was sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Ocean Exploration Initiative and the National Geographic Society.
“This is even older than the Roman ships we found in 2000 in the Black Sea,” Ballard said. “This discovery provides historians with the first look at an actual wreck from a key era of trade in the Black Sea known previously only through written records.”
The most significant of Ballard’s earlier finds in the Black Sea was a wooden ship dated to 500 A.D., lying intact in the sea’s anoxic layer 1,000 feet down, where wood can survive. The newest discovery lies in shallower water; a depth of 275 feet; where organisms had devoured its wooden structure. Although wooden pieces of the ship probably lie buried in the sea-bottom sediments, all that was visible to scientists was a large pile of amphorae, the tall jars used by ancient Greek and Roman merchants.
Coleman said three Bulgarian team members spotted the wreck from a manned Bulgarian submersible on Aug. 1, the last day of the expedition. “The Bulgarians reported up to the ship’s control room that they were seeing amphorae down there, and when I heard the translation, I got really excited,” Coleman said. “I knew they’d be ancient.” Coleman contacted archaeologist Fred Hiebert of the University of Pennsylvania, who advised that the crew retrieve an amphora for information.
The amphora, “industrial size” at about three feet in length, was recovered from a pile of the jars stacked in the classical pattern, said maritime archaeologist Cheryl Ward of Florida State University, who studied expedition data. Amphorae often were shipped with their pointed “toes” wedged into the gaps left between the shoulders of amphorae in the row beneath them, she said.
The retrieved jar turned out to contain a multi-layered story of commerce and culture. Its top layers were fish bones, and below them, coating the amphora bottom, was a resin that had been used as a sealant or left in the jar by wine.
“The question then was: Had the fish swum in or were they placed there?” said Hiebert, who is co-investigator on the project. Analysis revealed that the fish was a large, freshwater catfish that had been cut up like modern fish steaks, the butcher marks on the bones confirming that the fish had been placed in the jar. Radiocarbon studies by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found the bones – and thus the wreck – to be between 2,490 and 2,280 years old.
Hiebert said the amphora has a design characteristic of Sinop, Turkey. He noted that the ship may have been headed for the Mediterranean, where dried fish steaks, called tarichos in ancient Greek, were known as food for the masses. The ancient geographer Strabo wrote that some of Greece’s supply of tarichos was imported from the Black Sea region near the Crimea.
Hiebert speculated that the ship may have started its journey in Sinop, on the sea’s southern shore, then picked up the fish cargo on the northern shore’s Crimean Peninsula, where such river catfish abounded. The ship may then have headed west, Hiebert said, eventually sinking off Bulgaria.
“Or, if the other amphorae weren’t” carrying fish, these fish may just have been somebody’s lunch,” Ward said.
Hiebert said the ship could be a metaphor for the Black Sea’s commerce. “The Black Sea was a vibrant crossroads of trade that was cut off from the world at the end of the Ottoman period, early last century,” he said. “Since then, the Black Sea has been rather mysterious, difficult to study because of global politics. We’re finally getting a chance to piece together what happened there over many centuries.”
The purpose of the 2002 expedition was to zero in on “targets” identified in a sonar survey the previous season. The scientists waited out a week of foul weather, making progress on the expedition’s second week, in late July, using the Bulgarian manned submersible PC8. Of eight targets PC8 visited, four turned out to be shipwrecks.
The submersible team retrieved a piece of wood from one of the two wrecks they investigated, which was dated to about 400 years ago, the Ottoman period. The other target turned out to be the ancient wreck, with its splash of amphorae on the seafloor.
Ballard has targeted the Black Sea for study since learning of the anoxic layer’s likelihood of preserving wooden wrecks intact. He also wanted to test a theory that the sea was the site of the biblical Noah’s flood. Rocks and shells Ballard found there in 1999 indicated that the sea indeed had been a freshwater lake some 7,000 years ago.
Ballard and his team, including NOAA, plan to return to the wreck this summer for a fifth Black Sea mission, this time with innovative new technology – a submersible called Hercules that will excavate the wreck. They also will revisit the wooden Roman ship found in 2000 as well as a site of possible human habitation on the continental shelf identified on the same expedition. Ballard hopes Hercules will help him pioneer a new field of deepwater archaeology.