Scientists aboard a research ship in the Black Sea monitored a screen broadcasting surveillance data from more than a mile beneath the surface. Nothing groundbreaking appeared…until a blip sounded. Everyone standing around leapt to attention.
That blip turned out to be a shipwreck off the coast of Bulgaria, but as the team of scientists took a closer look, they realized this was no ordinary sunken ship. In fact, they’d stumbled upon one of the world’s greatest finds — and it was about to reveal secrets from a past long forgotten.
Jon Adams, a professor of archaeology at the University of Southampton in England, was leading a team to conduct geophysical surveys of submerged ancient landscapes. It might not sound exciting, but don’t let the science-speak fool you…
Since 2015, this team scoured nearly 6,000 feet below the surface of the Black Sea, which no human had seen since the end of the Ice Age! Since humans can only travel to a recommended depth of 130 feet, Adams needed special equipment to reach the seafloor.
The team’s off-shore vessel was equipped with the world’s best underwater technology and equipment. There were two Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to survey the ocean floor and send data back to the main vessel.
One of the ROVs carried bright lights and high-definition cameras. Additionally, the ROV had a laser scanner and other equipment to record data which had gone undiscovered for centuries.
The purpose of this mission was not only to map previously unexplored areas of the Black Sea, but scientists hoped to discover a world that long since forgotten. They hoped to gain insights on how the pre-historic communities lived.
Since 2015, Adams and his team spent three seasons mapping the Black Sea, covering over 800 miles of sea floor and collecting more than 330 feet of sediment core samples in various strategic locations.
And they’d discovered over 60 shipwreck sites during their mission. Some of the sites dated back to the Byzantine, Roman, and Hellenistic periods. The oxygen depleted water made for an extraordinary possibility of preservation for the treasures they found.
This third season proved to be their most successful season so far. In the last few weeks of exploration, they found 20 new shipwrecks from hundreds to thousands of feet below their vessel. Ships with masts still standing, rudders intact, and equipment still lying on the deck. Impressive!
These discoveries were exciting because they showed structural features, fittings, and equipment that only drawings and literature had described prior. Still, these were not the most exciting discoveries the team made…
Off the coast of Bulgaria in late 2017, the team was scanning the sea floor when they noticed an anomaly: a 75-foot-long ship that was partially buried on its side more than a mile below the surface.
The sunken ship was perfectly preserved so that its mast and rowing benches were still intact. Marine archaeologist Brendan Foley stated, “The usual critters that eat wood and other organics elsewhere… cannot live in these anoxic waters, so shipwrecks… are preserved as if they were in a… big pickle jar.”
From the video footage and imagery, the vessel was thought to be an oar-and-sail-powered Greek vessel. The features on the ship looked similar to that of the Greek trading vessel that appeared on the famous “Siren Vase” located in the British Museum in London.
This famous vase depicts Odysseus tied to the mast of the ship as depicted in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.” The vase itself has been dated to about 480 B.C. Not much is known about its creator, so scientists were intrigued about whether there was a connection between the two.
Adams’ team collected a small piece of the ship using the ROV (so as not to disturb the specimen) for radiocarbon dating. When they got the test results back, the whole team realized how important this scientific discovery really was.
Carbon dating revealed the vessel dated back to around 400 B.C. That meant that the ship had been lying undisturbed at the bottom on the Black Sea for more than 2,400 years — and everything about it was perfectly preserved!
Eddie Moore / Albuquerque Journal
Additionally, the vessel just discovered was the oldest intact shipwreck to ever be discovered! Adams stated, “A ship, surviving intact, from the Classical world, lying in over two kilometers of water, is something I would never have believed possible.”
Prior to this discovery, only fragments of ships had been found that pre-date the Greek vessel — the oldest being 3,000-years-old. But with this discovery, and its perfect preservation, the team was able to gain insight as to how far off the coast Greek trading ships would have traveled.
The team concluded that the likely demise of the vessel was a result of an intense storm that brought water aboard. Archaeologists believed the ship probably had a crew of about 15 to 25 men who couldn’t bail water overboard quickly enough.
The technology available these days is remarkable. Foley stated, “The new systems reduce the costs of deep ocean survey and search, and increase the area that can be investigated in a given time. Now it’s becoming possible to map an entire basin (think: the whole Black Sea) and discover every shipwreck on the seafloor.”
Adams and his team plan to leave the Greek vessel at the bottom of the ocean where it belongs. Bringing it to the surface would require them to take apart joints, which would ruin its preservation. They also planed to keep the coordinates of this discovery a secret.
Adams said, “This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.” They planed to share their discoveries with the world in the upcoming years, as most of their expeditions were followed by BAFTA-winning filmmakers.