In 2015, to learn how prehistoric humans dealt with the coastal impact of climate change, an international team of researchers in Bulgaria embarked on a multiyear geophysical survey of the Black Sea. Little did they know that the undertaking would morph into what’s been dubbed “one of the largest maritime archaeological projects ever staged”: As IFLScience reports, the team ended up discovering dozen of shipwrecks, dating from the 19th century all the way back to the 5th century BCE.
News of the “ship graveyard,” as researchers have taken to calling it, was first announced in 2016. Following three field seasons, marine scientists have just returned from their final trip with recovered artifacts and new insights about ancient ship design and trade patterns.
Scientists from the Black Sea Maritime Project (Black Sea MAP), conducted by the University of Southampton’s Center for Maritime Archaeology, used a host of high-tech equipment to survey the Black Sea’s floor and take pictures. In all, they located around 60 ships spanning 2500 years of history.
The vessels were in remarkable condition, considering their age. The Black Sea is uniquely suited for preserving organic materials, as it contains two separate layers of water: a top layer that contains oxygen and salt, and a second salty layer with little oxygen or light. Organisms that eat organic matter can’t survive in this environment, which is why the site’s ships stayed relatively intact.
According to National Geographic, researchers were still able to make out the chisel and tool marks on planks, along with carved decorations. They also saw rigging materials, rope coils, tills, rudders, standing masts, and cargo.
Ships were discovered from the Classical, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, with the oldest dating back to the 4th or 5th century BCE. One particularly exciting find was an ornately carved Ottoman ship, which researchers nicknamed Flower of the Black Sea due to its floral deck carvings. Meanwhile, a potentially Venetian ship from the 13th or 14th century provided scientists with a first-ever glimpse of the ships that were the precursors to those used during the Age of Exploration.
“That’s never been seen archaeologically,” expedition member Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz told The New York Times in 2016. “We couldn’t believe our eyes.”
To reconstruct how these vessels once looked, researchers used 3D software to combine thousands of still photos shot from different angles. This photogrammetric method allowed them to create digital models of the vessels and identify historical features that were once a mystery to archaeologists.
“There’s one medieval trading vessel where the towers on the bow and stern are pretty much still there,” said Ed Parker, CEO of Black Sea MAP, according to IFLScience. “It’s as if you are looking at a ship in a movie, with ropes still on the deck and carvings in the wood.”
A 3D rendering of a Roman galley, created by Black Sea MAP project researchers.
EEF, Black Sea MAP
Photogrammetric model of a wreck from the Medieval period, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
EEF, Black Sea MAP
Photogrammetric model of the stern of an Ottoman wreck, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
EEF, Black Sea Map
Divers with the Black Sea MAP project examining the Roman galley.
EEF, Black Sea MAP
Scientists say the ship graveyard will help them learn more about ancient trade routes, and how various Black Sea coastal communities were connected. That said, they’re still committed to their initial goal of investigating ancient changes in the region’s environment, using sedimentary core samples and other methods to learn more about the impact of sea level change after the last glacial cycle.
“Our primary aims are focused on the later prehistory of the region and in particular on human response to major environmental change,” said Jon Adams, the project’s chief investigator and a founding director of the University of Southampton’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology, in a news statement. “We believe we now have an unparalleled archive of data with which to address these big questions about the human past.”