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Ballard Finds Traces of Ancient Habitation Beneath Black Sea


Off the coast of northern Turkey, 311 feet (95 meters) below the Black Sea, explorer Robert Ballard has discovered remains of an ancient structure that was apparently flooded in a deluge of biblical proportions. The find may lend credence to a theory that a Black Sea flood gave rise to the Noah story and other flood legends.


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Abundant wooden beams and branches were located in the vicinity of the archaeological site. This beam shows signs of being worked by implements or tools.


Today Ballard, famous for finding Titanic, confirmed that his research team, sponsored in part by the National Geographic Society, has identified a wooden structure on a gently sloping shelf near the convergence of two submerged ancient river beds.

“This is an incredible find,” Ballard said in a telephone call to the National Geographic Society from the expedition ship Northern Horizon. “It consists of [the remains of] a single building with a hewn beam and wooden branches that formed the walls and roof of a structure—most likely a house. We have also found and photographed stone tools, possibly a chisel or an axe, and ceramic storage vessels, all untouched since the flooding of the Black Sea.”

The find represents “the first concrete evidence for the occupation of the Black Sea coast prior to its flooding,” says expedition archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “This is a major discovery that will rewrite the history of civilizations in this key area between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.”

The wooden structure is the only building sighted so far during the expedition. As the search continues, the team hopes that additional finds will suggest a settlement pattern along the ancient coastline. Using sonar profiles, Ballard’s team has identified more than 50 potential search areas similar to the site of the structure.

IN SEARCH OF NOAH’S FLOOD

Last year, Ballard and his colleagues found proof that a catastrophic flood inundated the Black Sea in the region north of Turkey. The place and date of the flood—which may have occurred around 5,500 B.C.—correspond to the time and location of the Old Testament account of Noah.

Following a theory proposed by marine geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman, Ballard searched for evidence that the Black Sea, originally a freshwater lake, filled rapidly with salt water spilling from the Mediterranean Sea about 7,500 years ago through what is now the Bosporus. The flood, apparently the result of thousands of years of meltwater collecting in the Mediterranean following the end of the last ice age (about 12,000 years ago) would have spread over an area of land the size of Costa Rica. The flood may have buried coastal settlements as it engulfed the ancient landscape.

During the 1999 expedition, Ballard’s team discovered a submerged ancient shoreline with a flat beach area beneath about 550 feet(168 meters) of water—evidence supporting Ryan and Pittman’s theory.

Radiocarbon dating and paleontological evidence from a sample of shells and sediment collected from the site suggested that a massive flood occured about 7,500 years ago. However, carbon dating using marine life is notoriously vague. Dates can be off by several hundred years. Dating a sample of wood from the site would provide a much-needed confirmation for Pitman and Ryan’s proposed flood date.

Among the sediment samples was a piece of obsidian, which was used by people in the ancient Near East to shape blades and arrows. Hoping that the obsidian suggested the presence of humans, Ballard returned this year to search for signs of human occupation.

SIGNS OF LIFE

Early last week, using the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Argus, Ballard’s team spotted a rectangular feature about 12 meters (13 yards) long and 4 meters (4.4 yards) wide at the intersection of two ancient inland river channels . It appeared to be made of wood. Though intrigued, they were forced to wait for the arrival of the more nimble ROV Little Hercules, whose superior video capability enabled the crew to get closer to the structure and get a much clearer look.

Through Little Hercules’ robotic eyes, on Friday the team looked again at the mysterious structure, and confirmed it was a type of dwelling. “The building [has] carved wooden beams, wooden branches, and stone tools collapsed among the mud matrix of the structure,” Ballard said.

Archaeologist Hiebert noted the presence of a stone axe, which looked exactly like one in a Sinop archaeology museum, located just 40 miles (64 kilometers) from the find.

The structure was likely made of wattle and daub—a framework of wooden sticks covered with mud or clay. This type of construction, with wood supports sunk firmly into the ground, would account for the fact that the wood was not carried away by floodwaters. As the waters rose, the mud probably melted away, leaving the wooden “bones” behind.

Though the structure does not lie within the Black Sea’s anoxic “dead zone,” the site is well preserved due to its proximity to those deep, oxygen-free waters. Such proximity might have prevented wood-consuming organisms from devouring the site as they would likely have done in shallower waters.

THRILL OF DISCOVERY

“The excitement aboard the ship is unbelievable,” said nationalgeographic.com producer Sean Markey in a telephone call from the Northern Horizon.

Markey joined the expedition to chronicle the search for evidence of human habitation in the preflood landscape of the Black Sea. Finding any signs of human occupation was a long shot for the team, which had planned to devote just two weeks to the search.

All of that has changed, says Markey, who reports that the team on the Northern Horizon is working “around the clock to search other potential locations, and photograph and map the search area—and look for signs of ancient artifacts.”

If Ballard’s team gets permission from the Turkish government, they may take a sample of the wood for dating. This would not only confirm the date of the structure, but help to establish a more precise date for when the flooding of the Black Sea took place.

“I expected to write it off,” said Ballard shortly after the team first spotted the remains of the structure with the ROV Argus. “I’ve never seen anything like that before, and I’ve seen a lot of things.”

Says Markey, “this was the long shot, and it turned out to be the winner.”

The expedition will continue to file dispatches from the Black Sea as new discoveries are made. Check Ballard & the Black Sea for updates.

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More Information

Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard has identified the remains of a wooden building preserved near the oxygen-less waters of the Black Sea. It appears that the structure was consumed by floodwaters that inundated the Black Sea.

In 1999 Ballard discovered an ancient shoreline, about 550 feet (168 meters) below the current level of the Black Sea. Sediment samples indicated that a massive flooding event inundated the region approximately 7,500 years ago.

It is estimated that during the flood, water poured into the Black Sea at a rate about 200 times the flow of Niagara Falls.

Stories of a great flood are common to many mythologies around the world, and may have roots in a remembered catastrophe such as the flooding of the Black Sea. The Old Testament, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Greek and Roman mythologies all describe such an event.

THE “NOAH’S FLOOD” THEORY

In their 1999 book, Noah’s Flood, Columbia University marine geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman describe a possible scenario at the end of the last ice age—about 12,000 years ago. As the Earth’s temperatures rose and the ice melted, waters in the Mediterranean Sea swelled, apparently putting pressure on a natural earthen dam that separated the Black Sea (then a freshwater lake) from the Mediterranean.

About 7,500 years ago the Mediterranean water supposedly spilled over the earthen dam and into the Black Sea. This flooding raised water levels in the Black Sea region by about 6 inches (15 centimeters) per day. The salt water of the Mediterranean was much denser than fresh water of the Black Sea.

As this freshwater lake became the enlarged Black Sea that we know today, the denser salt water sank to the bottom, and the fresh water rose to the top. This effect stifled oxygen exchange between the surface and deeper waters. With no oxygen, creatures trapped in the saltwater layer soon died.

In 1999 Robert Ballard lent support to Ryan and Pitman’s theory by identifying an ancient shoreline beneath 550 feet (168 meters) of water off the coast of Sinop, in northern Turkey. Sediment samples confirmed that the Black Sea was a freshwater lake before about 7,500 years ago and that it supported saltwater species after the date of the proposed flood.

This catastrophe for living creatures has been a boon for underwater archaeologists: The deep, oxygen-poor layer at the bottom of the Black Sea cannot support wood-boring mollusks or other creatures that could consume wooden structures.

The Black Sea was an important link in ancient trade routes between Greece, Egypt, and the Near East. It is possible that ancient ships lie completely intact on the bottom. It is also possible that ancient settlements consumed by the rising waters may lie entombed in the oxygen-less “dead” layer—looking just as they did when the waters started rising.