Slavic and Eurasian Studies

Archaeologists study historic Black Sea shipwrecks

Tue, October 28, 2008

"Archaeologists have long-suspected the unique composition of the Black Sea held the promise of a perfectly preserved graveyard of shipwrecks, due to the lack of oxygen in the sea's dead zone," says Dan Davis, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Classics and research assistant with the Institute of Classical Archaeology (ICA) at The University of Texas at Austin.

Because the 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 could do no more than look at the ancient shipwreck at the initial discovery, but he 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.

Since 1992, ICA has excavated and preserved the ancient site, under the leadership of the institute's founder and director Dr. Joseph Carter and in partnership with the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos. Other units across campus also have provided support, including the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (CREEES), Harry Ransom Center, School of Architecture and School of Information.

"Ballard's deepwater research adds a new dimension that complements our excavations on land," 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.

"The Black Sea has been a geopolitical hotspot for centuries," explains Dr. Thomas Garza, chairman of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies and director of CREEES. "Because so many diverse nations line its shores, it's been a nexus of trade and a cultural crossroads throughout history."

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