Black Sea Shipwrecks

Yesterday’s Science section of the New York Times featured an article about the remarkable number of shipwrecks recently identified in the Black Sea by an international team of archaeologists. The ships are one of several discoveries in the area of the Black Sea to make major headlines in the last few years; who could forget the enchanting image of the sunken 5th century basilica under the waters of Lake Iznik, one of Archaeology Magazine’s top ten discoveries for 2014?

 Sunken Byzantine Basilica at Lake Iznik, Turkey

Sunken Byzantine Basilica at Lake Iznik, Turkey

The shipwrecks presented in the NYT article span the Byzantine to Ottoman periods, from the 9th to 19th centuries. The presence of the vessels themselves isn’t really a surprise - the importance of the Black Sea as a conduit to trade is well known. Their discovery was a matter of time and money, as large-scale underwater archaeological discoveries require a lot of both. But that doesn’t make the findings any less exciting, and the spotlight on maritime archaeology reminds us of all the exciting work going on out there by smaller projects. As an example check out Diving Archaeology:

If you look on maps of the Black Sea from the 16th century and earlier (for example the 1585 woodblock map below by Heinrich Bunting), many misrepresent the Black Sea as an elongated band on an east-west axis, the result of fitting a Ptolemaic world-view into an expanding understanding of the earth. In a way, the error is a fitting metaphor for the importance of the Black Sea in bridging east and west, as the gateway to Europe and connections to the northern branch of the Silk Road.


The state of preservation of the deep water Black Sea shipwrecks is incredible, with intact coils of rope, rudders and elaborately carved decorations all visible in the images taken by tethered robot. This is due to a unique set of circumstances discussed in the NYT article and seen in the early 1600s Jocodus Hondius map of the Ottoman Empire below. Namely, three major rivers -the Don, the Danube, and the Dneiper - all empty massive amounts of fresh water into the sea, which mixes with salty water from the Mediterranean to form a deep water layer with a lack of oxygen. The Hondius map uses the ancient Greek name for the Black Sea, Pontus Euxinus (the hospitable sea), which it describes as salty, with abundant fish.

While the maps displayed here are not sea charts, there is no reason why they couldn't have been in the collection of a learned traveler sailing the Black Sea, perhaps a merchant from one of the great trading powers of Genoa or Venice. Unfortunately, we are left only to imagine which maps might have sunk along with the newly discovered ships; even Black Sea preservation is not that complete.