Ancient Shipwrecks of the Black Sea

Ancient Shipwrecks of the Black Sea

Due to very low levels of oxygen at shallow depths, Black Sea shipwrecks are well preserved when compared to other Mediterranean wrecks from the same time period. Oceanographers and maritime archaeologists look to the waters of the Black Sea for shipwrecks that can be used to uncover the history and culture of ancient civilizations throughout the region.

Grades

6 - 12+

Subjects

Earth Science, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Geography, Geology, Human Geography, Oceanography, Social Studies, World History

Partner
National Geographic Television and Film

As ancient people began to develop civilizations, or urban settlements with complex ways of life, extensive trade routes formed and connected communities throughout the Mediterranean region. The eastern Mediterranean and Black seas became essential marine highways of trade and travel in the ancient world. By exploring shipwrecks from this region, researchers learn more about the culture and history of the people who lived there. Certain goods, trade routes, artifacts, and shipbuilding techniques discovered have been linked to the traditions of the ancient Greeks (1000 BCE) and even the ancient Egyptians (4000 BCE).

Archaeology is the study of human history using the material remains, or artifacts, of a culture, which include objects that humans created, modified, or used. Maritime archaeologists study artifacts and sites submerged in lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Maritime archaeologists studying shipwrecks often work with oceanographers like Dr. Robert Ballard so they can explore wrecks in the deep ocean, including those in the Black Sea. While many land-based archaeological finds have already been studied, the ocean depths contain countless new sites and artifacts yet to be discovered.

When a shipwreck is found, archaeologists determine the historical time period it came from by identifying key artifacts. Due to very low oxygen levels in the Black Sea, artifacts are often better preserved there than those found in other parts of the ocean or on land. These preserved artifacts include objects like wood, fabric, and bone, which are often easily decomposed, or broken down, especially in the upper layers of the ocean. The benefit of discovering preserved organic, or carbon-based, artifacts is that after they are excavated, radiocarbon dating can be used to determine the age of the remains and therefore the era of the wreck. In addition, DNA can often be extracted and used to determine the origin of the artifact, and in the case of human bones and teeth, who the ancient mariners were and where they came from.

At no more than two thousand years old, most of the shipwrecks found in the Mediterranean region date from CE. However, a unique shipwreck discovered by Ballard’s team in the Black Sea is an exception to that rule. Found in 100 meters (328 feet) of relatively shallow water, the Eregli E shipwreck is located off Turkey’s northern coast and the town of Eregli, which was part of the ancient Greek trading empire. Clay jars, or amphorae, that were used to transport goods like olive oil, grain, and wine were found at the site and provide an age estimate of 2,500 years old. This means the ship was trading during the Classical Greek period of the fourth and fifth centuries BCE.

Wood and bone artifacts have also been found on the relatively well-preserved Eregli E wreck site. Sewn triangles and mortise and tenon joints are evident on some of the wood at the site. Such shipbuilding methods date back to the ancient Egyptians (4000 BCE) and were used to fasten the ship’s hull planks together, providing structure and strength to the vessel. If DNA can be extracted from the wood and bones that were found on the site, the Eregli E shipwreck could provide information about ancient shipbuilding and traded goods, as well as information about the heritage and point of origin of the ship’s crew. According to Ballard, the Eregli E is the most well-preserved shipwreck from Classical Greek civilization discovered thus far. If such a well-preserved wreck can be found in relatively shallow water, he can only imagine how many more Black Sea shipwrecks are waiting to be explored to reveal the history and culture of the Mediterranean region’s ancient civilizations.

Fast Fact

  • Archaeology was first recognized as a formal discipline of science about 150 years ago. Maritime archaeology is an even younger science, formally recognized in the 1960s with excavations of shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Fast Fact

  • The average depth of the Black Sea is 1,250 meters (4,100 feet), with its deepest point at approximately 2,210 meters (7,250 feet). The main reason it has little to no oxygen in its deeper layers is because its upper and lower layers do not mix. This prevents oxygen from the atmosphere getting to deeper layers.

Fast Fact

  • Today, mortise and tenon joints are used mostly in the fine furniture and cabinetry industry, not in shipbuilding.
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Writer
Angela M. Cowan, Education Specialist and Curriculum Designer
Editors
Julie Brown, National Geographic Society
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Producers
Katy Andres
Julie Brown, National Geographic Society
Alison Michel, National Geographic Society
Winn Brewer, National Geographic Education
other
Last Updated

September 27, 2022

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Funder
National Science Foundation

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