Archaeology: 60 Ancient Sunken Vessels Found in the Black Sea

A 3-year seafaring expedition in The Black Sea has just returned to port with some stunning discoveries, adding a plethora of precious maritime and art history artefacts to the archaeological record. Art Today’s exclusive source reveals the full story…

Preliminary photogrammetric model of Black Sea MAP’s final discovery of 2017. A Roman ship lying in over 2000m of water. Its mast still stands, both quarter rudders with their tillers are still attached and the yards lie on deck where they fell. Rope is still draped over the frames due to the extraordinary preservation of organic materials in the Black Sea’s anoxic conditions. The relatively slight damage at the bow and stern was sustained at the time of wrecking. Since then, nearly two thousand years ago, time has passed it by…

A recent maritime archaeology excavation of the Black Sea has yielded results experts could only ever dream of.  Beginning in 2015, and taking place over 3 separate seasons, the aquatic survey recovered relics to add to the archaeological record which finally support evidence of ancient warships seen previously only in art and evidenced in inscriptions.  The artefact haul from the 60 wrecks – dating from 5th Century BC – will be substantial, taking many years to fully retrieve and catalogue.

Art Today’s exclusive source gave us the full story:-

In  2015,  The  Black  Sea  MAP,  one  of  the  largest  maritime  archaeological  projects  ever  staged, set  out   to  investigate  the  changes  in  the  ancient  environment  of  the  Black  Sea  region – including  the  impact  of   sea  level  change  following  the  last  glacial  cycle.

Chief  Investigator,  Professor  Jon  Adams (University  of  Southampton)  stated:   ‘This   assemblage  must  comprise  one  of  the  finest  underwater  museums  of  ships  and  seafaring  in  the   world.’.

The team returned from their last tour on 19th September, glowing with insider knowledge of the significance of their discovery, and the anticipation of the world’s imminent reaction to it.  Bringing with them the first of the preserved amphorae and other ancient artefacts, the cream of the crop of world-renowned maritime scientists held their breath over the news that was about to break…


Black Sea MAP’s discovery of a late Roman ship on the Bulgarian shelf.  Although the depth is relatively shallow, the wreck is extraordinarily well preserved.  A cargo of amphorae in the bow, tiles from the ship’s galley and some of the crew’s cooking pots, a capstan (known from illustrations but never seen before) and rigging elements. One of the amphorae will be recovered for dating and further analysis…

Once at shore, Professor  Jon  Adams commented on their initial findings:-

‘We  dived  on  one  wreck,  a  merchant  vessel  of  the  Byzantine   period  dating  to  the  10th  Century.  It  lies  at  a  depth  of  93m – that  puts  it  into  the  diving  range – so  we   took  the  opportunity  to  visually  inspect  certain  structural  features  first  hand.     The  condition  of  this  wreck  below  the  sediment  is  staggering,  the  structural  timber  looks  as  good  as   new.  This  suggested  far  older  wrecks  must  exist  and  indeed  even  in  the  few  days  since  the  dive  we   have  discovered  three  wrecks  considerably  older,  including  one  from  the  Hellenistic  period  and   another  that  may  be  older  still.’.  

Encouraged to expand their survey, they delved further into the depths…

The  earliest  ship found  so  far  is  from   the  Classical  period  around  the  4th/5th Century  BC.  Vessels  have  also  been  discovered  from  the  Roman,  Byzantine  and  Ottoman  periods  spanning  2.5 millennia.  This  represents   an  unbroken  pattern  of  trade  and  exchange,  warfare  and communication  that   reaches  back  into  prehistory,  and  because  of  the  anoxic  conditions  of  the  Black  Sea  (the  lack  of   oxygen)  below  a  certain  depth,  some  of  the  wrecks  survive  in  incredible condition.

Ships  lie  hundreds  or  thousands  of  metres  deep  with  their  masts  still  standing,  rudders  in place,   cargoes  of  amphorae  and  ship’s  fittings  lying  on  deck,  with  carvings  and  tool  marks  as distinct  as  the   day  they  were  made  by  the  shipwrights.  Many  of  the  ships  show  structural features,  fittings  and   equipment  that  are  only  known  from  iconography  or  written  description but  never  seen  until  now.

Dr  Kalin  Dimitrov,  Director  of  the  Centre  of  Underwater  Archaeology  in  Sozopol  said:-

‘During  the  third  season  of  the  Black  Sea  MAP  we  continued  filling  in  the  blanks  of  the  mosaic  of   ancient  seafaring  with  the  discovery  and  documentation  of  outstandingly  well  preserved  ships.  The   vessels  represent  the  Roman  and  Byzantine  periods,  and  the  time  of  ancient  Greek  colonization.  The   discovered  shipwrecks  will  undoubtedly  rewrite  the  history  of  ancient  shipbuilding.’.


The  Black  Sea  MAP  project  was  conceived  by  Hans  K  Rausing  who  established  the  Expedition and   Education  Foundation  to  commission  the  project.  The  Foundation’s  work  was  funded  by The Julia  and Hans  Rausing  Trust,  a  charitable  fund,  reflecting  their  interest  in  improving  our understanding  of  the origins  of  humanity  and  human  civilization   in  the  region.

Documentary Footage:-

For  3  years, Bafta-­winning  documentary  filmmakers,  David  Belton  and  Andy  Byatt,   documented the  extraordinary  discoveries  of  each  voyage  to  the  Black  Sea.    The  team  collected   extraordinary  underwater  footage  of  the  wrecks  as  well  as  the  highs  and  lows  of  the expeditions,  to  provide  international  audiences  with  unique  and  entertaining insight.

For  Andy  Byatt,  a  key  producer  of  the  David  Attenborough  BBC  series,  ‘Blue  Planet’,  it  has been a   highly  rewarding  experience:  ‘I  think  we  have  all  been  blown  away  by  the remarkable finds that  Jon  Adams  and  his  team  have   made.  The  quality  of  the  footage revealing this  hidden world is  absolutely  unique.’.


The  expedition’s  STEM  Scholar  programme  recruited  16  less-advantaged  students  in  2016  and 2017   from  schools  in  the  UK  to  take  part  in  educational  programmes  both  on  and  offshore.     Following  the  training  week,  students  were  selected  to  either  join  the  research  vessel  during  its 3rd   field  season  in  the  Black  Sea,  or  to  carry  out  onshore-­based  projects  at  the  University  of Southampton.  The  onshore  team  carried  out  their  own  research  projects  with  geophysical  and   coring  data  gathered  during  the  2nd  field  season.  The  on-board  team  developed  education and   careers  resources  linked  to  the  Black  Sea  MAP.  They  worked  alongside  the  range  of teams  collaborating  on-board  the  research  vessel  ‘Havila  Subsea’,  as  well  as  working  with  the  vessel crew  to   understand  more  about  the  way  a  vessel  operates  at  sea.  This  hands-­on  experience provided  an   engaging  and  exciting  context  for  science  and  technology  learning.

History Meets Technology:-

Ancient  landscapes  and  prehistoric  settlements  lost  to  rising  seas,  were revealed  by  underwater   excavation,  remote  sensing  and  geological  sampling.  The  Black  Sea  MAP  team  completed  its final  phase  of  fieldwork  having  excavated  the  remains  of  an early  Bronze  Age  settlement  at Ropotamo (Bulgaria),  near  the  ancient  shoreline  where  the  sea level   was  much  lower  than today earlier  in  the  year.  As  the  waters  rose  the settlement was  abandoned  and  now  the  remains  of house  timbers,  hearths  and  ceramics  lie  2.5m  below the  seabed.  The  valley  in  which  the  village had  lain  now  became  a  sheltered  bay  visited  by Archaic Greek colonists,  followed by  a  harbour for  early  Byzantine  seafarers,  and  finally  an anchorage  used  by  the Ottomans.

Continued Updates:-

Via our exclusive source, Art Today will give continuous updates on the survey’s progress in wreck and artefact analysis and recording.  We wish the Black Sea MAP team the very best of luck in their retrieval of such a historically-important hoard of evidence.


[Credits:  Feature Photo – Screen shot of the 2000 year old Roman wreck in 2000m of water. The port side quarter rudder with its tiller still attached’ (Photo Johan Rönnby, Black Sea MAP); Black Sea MAP Newsdesk; EEF Expeditions Ltd;]



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