Department of Classics

Phantoms of the Deep: Archaeologists Find Graveyard of Ancient Shipwrecks in the Black Sea

Thu, October 30, 2008

Because the anoxic environment cannot support the organisms that typically feast on organic materials, such as wood and flesh, there is an extraordinary opportunity for preservation, including shipwrecks and the cargos they carried.

But it wasn't until Dr. Robert Ballard-head of the Institute of Archaelogical Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island best known for his discovery of the wreck of Titanic-embarked on a series of deepwater surveys of the Black Sea in 1999, that the speculation was proven true.

By 2003, Ballard had discovered several ancient shipwrecks off the coast of Sinop, Turkey. The most famous of these, Sinop D, is a sixth-century Byzantine merchant ship found in the Black Sea's anoxic waters at a depth of 325 meters. The ship's discovery made international headlines as the best-preserved ancient shipwreck ever found.

"Suddenly, coming out of the gloom, we saw the mast of that ancient shipwreck-this mythical kind of ship that we'd read about was possible, but no one had ever found one," Ballard says in the National Geographic television special "Ghost Ships of the Black Sea," which aired last June. "You're just mesmerized. Even though you're a scientist, even though you've done this a zillion times, you're still overwhelmed because it's so special."

Ballard and his team planned to return in subsequent years with the technology to excavate the exciting find. To aid in his quest, Ballard tapped the expertise of the university's Institute of Classical Archaeology, which has a long-term presence on the north coast of the Black Sea at the 2,500-year-old city of Chersonesos in Ukraine.

"Ballard's deepwater research adds a new dimension that complements our excavations on land," ICA director Dr Joseph Carter says. "At the land site, we're looking at the crops people were growing and what items they were trading, but the cargo of these ancient shipwrecks may be able to tells us with whom they were trading."

The city of Chersonesos offers unprecedented insight into the ancient world because it has been home to the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Slavs, and survived invasions by the Mongols and Ottoman Turks, among others.

As a result of Ballard's collaboration with the university, Davis had the chance to join the legendary oceanographer's subsequent expeditions to the Black Sea.

Davis' extensive background in nautical archaeology and experience as a deep-sea rescue diver with the U.S. Navy made him a natural choice for the team, Carter says. -- Read the full story!

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