The Ultimate Wreck Dive You’ll Never Do

ancient Greek shipwreck
A mile deep on the floor of the Black Sea, the ancient Greek shipwreck was found and studied using ROV’s. Image: Black Sea MAP

HIDDEN IN THE BLACK SEA FOR MORE THAN 2,400 YEARS, an ancient Greek shipwreck sits tantalizingly intact, awaiting visitors – one mile below the surface. It’s the ultimate wreck dive nobody will do except with ROV’s or manned submersibles.

The 75 ft-/23 m-long ship, believed to be a trading vessel dating from about 400 B.C., sits on the bottom tilted towards its starboard side, with its mast still erect, its rowing benches in place, its rudder ready, its cargo apparently still in the hold.

It’s the oldest intact shipwreck known to mankind, according to the Black Sea Maritime Project (Black Sea MAP), which announced the discovery in October.

PRESERVED IN THE ANOXIC ZONE

The wreck is so remarkably intact because of the Black Sea’s unique characteristics. Largely closed off from the Mediterranean by the long, narrow Bosporus Strait, the sea’s salt water is layered beneath lighter freshwater from the ocean’s surrounding landmass.

Which makes it especially salty and anoxic, or largely oxygen-free. This environment keeps out the microbes and other life that devour wooden vessels in more typical waters. The wreck is so well preserved because nothing got to it to eat it.

FINDING THE ANCIENT GREEK SHIPWRECK

The wreck was discovered in the fall of 2017 as part of a three-year MAP project to study the ocean sea bed and better understand the impact of prehistoric sea level changes. Surveying 800 square miles/2,000 square kilometers, the scientists have discovered some 60 wrecks on the Black Sea floor, ranging in era from the ancient Greek shipwreck through Roman and Byzantine vessels to a 17th Century Cossack raiding fleet. They’ve also examined the remains of some Bronze Age villages, situated at the sea’s edge when the Black Sea was considerably lower.

“A ship, surviving intact, from the Classical world, lying in over 2 killometers of water, is something I would never have believed possible,” noted Professor Jon Adams, Black Sea MAP’s principal investigator. “This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.”

ancient Greek shipwreck
The ancient Greek shipwreck in the Black Sea strongly resembles the British Museum’s “Siren Vase,” depicting Odysseus’ bound to the mast in order to hear the Siren’s seductive songs – and survive the experience. Image: julieland, via Wikimedia Commons.

ANCIENT WRECK ROMANCE

Naturally, revelation of the discovery of an ancient Greek shipwreck stimulated imaginations as well as scientific curiosity. For one thing, some people noted, the ship looks like it only awaits a crew to take their places to be ready to sail.

For another, the vessel calls out to enthusiasts of the history and literature of Bronze Age Greece. It essentially mirrors the ship painted on “The Siren Vase,” an artifact from the Classical Greek era housed in the British Museum. It depicts Odysseus bound to the mast while the boat’s crew – ears stuffed with beeswax – row past the sirens singing their alluring songs to draw listeners to their deaths.

CONFIRMING THE SIREN VASE

Radiocarbon dating of a small piece of the wreck confirmed its place in the Classical Age. Before this, the Siren Vase image was pretty much the only indication in existence of Greek trading vessels of the era.

PRINCIPAL SOURCES: “World’s oldest intact shipwreck discovered in Black Sea,” The Guardian; “Oldest intact shipwreck discovered at bottom of Black sea,” Washington Post;  “The Black Sea Maritime Archeology Project,” MAP website.

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