The Black Sea, once a vast expanse known as the Black Lake during the last ice age, holds secrets that an international team of sailors and scientists recently unveiled. While originally exploring the sea’s depths to understand prehistoric responses to rising sea levels, they stumbled upon a breathtaking discovery—41 well-preserved shipwrecks spanning a millennium of history, from the 9th to the 19th century.
The Black Sea’s Historical Transformation
Jon Adams, the principal investigator and director of the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton, narrates the sea’s transformation around 12,000 years ago. As temperatures rose and sea levels increased, saltwater from the Mediterranean spilled into the Black Sea, creating two distinct layers of water. Below 150 meters, oxygen dropped to zero, creating an ideal environment for preserving organic materials.
Unusual Water Chemistry: A Preservation Marvel
Unlike typical seawater, the Black Sea’s unique chemistry dramatically slows disintegration. Shipwrecks discovered below 150 meters, some as deep as 2,200 meters, astoundingly showcase well-preserved wood with visible chisel and tool marks. Rigging materials, coils of rope, tillers, rudders, and decorative elements have endured the centuries.
Adams expresses awe, noting that this preservation rarity offers a unique opportunity for archaeologists to independently verify historical records, transcending the information provided by texts and illustrations.
Diverse Maritime Heritage: Byzantine, Ottoman, and More
The discovered wrecks span various periods, with the earliest dating back to the late 800s during the Byzantine Empire’s dominance. Ottoman ships from the 16th to 18th centuries, 19th-century vessels, and a medieval Italian ship from the 14th century add layers to this maritime time capsule.
Archaeologists decipher ship origins by analyzing cargo, anchor types, and mast arrangements. Merchant transports, laden with wine, grain, metals, timber, and more, dominate the majority of the wrecks. Adams speculates on the possibility of “oar-powered Cossack raiding vessels,” adding a tantalizing hint of piracy to the narrative.
Advanced Survey Techniques: Mapping the Deep
The survey, conducted by a collaborative team of British, American, and Bulgarian scientists aboard the Stril Explorer, utilized cutting-edge technology. Sonar and two ROVs, each worth millions, captured high-resolution photos, videos, and laser measurements of the scattered wrecks across approximately 2,000 square kilometers.
Real-time control from a ship command center allowed 24/7 exploration, maximizing coverage. The resulting three-dimensional photogrammetry models will aid in further study and manipulation.
Future Prospects and Unanswered Questions
The team’s next season will delve deeper into the Black Sea’s submerged landscapes, addressing the original goal of studying prehistoric responses to environmental changes. Sedimentary core samples, taken by drilling into the seafloor, will provide insights into the timing and speed of the Black Sea’s level rise. With analysis expected to take a year, the team anticipates resolving contested questions.
Featured Image Credit: Black Sea Map/EEF