Ancient Greek Wreck Found in Black Sea

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
January 16, 2003

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Researchers announced today their discovery of the shipwrecked remains of an ancient trading vessel over 2,300 years old that sank in the Black Sea off the coast of present-day Bulgaria.

The vessel dates to the 5th to 3rd century B.C., an era known to scholars as the classical period of ancient Greece—the time of Plato when Athens reached the height of power and Zeus was believed to rule the celestial firmament.

The shipwreck is the oldest ever found in the Black Sea. It joins a relatively small handful of other known shipwrecks of the Greek period.

Members of a joint U.S.-Bulgarian research expedition discovered the wreck on August 1, 2002 in 275 feet (84 meters) of water off the eastern coast of Bulgaria. Using a three-person submersible vehicle launched from the 180-foot (55-meter) Bulgarian research ship Akademik, the team dove on a target previously identified by sonar on the last day of a 14-day expedition.

"The first thing [the crew] saw was this pile of amphora. There were probably 20 to 30 jars that were exposed on the surface layer…I knew right away that it was probably ancient," said Dwight Coleman, a marine geologist at the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Connecticut. Coleman served as chief scientist of the expedition together with Petko Dimitrov of the Bulgaria Academy of Science's Institute for Oceanology, in Varna.

The expedition was the latest in a series of expeditions to the Black Sea initiated by National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence and Institute for Exploration president Robert Ballard, the oceanographer and undersea explorer famous for his discovery of the Titanic and other historic shipwrecks. Since 1997, Ballard has worked with archaeologist Frederik Hiebert at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia to investigate the ancient cultures and maritime trade routes of the Black Sea. Ballard and Hiebert joined Coleman in making today's announcement.

Amphora Yields Clues, Raises Questions

Researchers said they were most intrigued by the contents of a single, large amphora that was the sole artifact retrieved from the underwater site.

The amphora, a type of two-handled clay jar used by Greek and Roman merchants, is unusually large and measures nearly three feet (one meter) tall by 1.5 feet (0.5 meter) wide—roughly half the size of a 55-gallon (208-liter) oil drum.

Recent analysis of sediment gathered from inside the amphora revealed that it contained bones of a large freshwater catfish species, several olive pits, and resin. Such seemingly small clues have already answered questions about the ship's cargo and possible origin for researchers, while raising others.

Cut marks visible on the fish bones, together with other physical clues and references from classical literature, lead researchers to believe the amphora carried fish steaks—catfish that was butchered into six- to eight-centimeter (two- to three-inch) chunks and perhaps salted and dried for preservation during shipping.

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