Surrounded by Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova in the west, Turkey in the south, Ukraine in the north and Armenia and Georgia in the east, the Black sea served as the ideal junction for trade between the West and the East since antiquity. A recent exploration project, led by an international group of sailors and scientists have made discoveries of 41 shockingly well preserved shipwrecks that shed light upon the nature and extent of trade being carried out through the Black sea and other historical processes experienced by the regions surrounding the water body.
While archaeological discoveries in the Black sea were made in the past as well, what makes the recent discoveries outstanding is the remarkable way in which the finds have preserved over centuries. The group of 41 vessels date between the 9th and the 19th centuries. As per a report by the New York Times, the masts, timbers and planking of the medieval ship were in perfect condition and lay that way for about eight or nine centuries.
Never before have researchers found archaeological evidence dating back so many centuries in complete shape with ropes and rudders in tact. While historians over decades have generally made available descriptions of equipment and vessels buried in deep antiquity, using bits and pieces of information available in literary and archaeological sources, this new discovery would help give an enhanced form to historical understanding of societies around the Black sea.
A flourishing trade route
The earliest evidence of trade in the Black sea can be traced back to 5th or 6th century BCE, when the Greeks established several trading outposts in the region. Other archaeological evidence like coins and pottery shed light to the commercial activities taking place here between the Greeks and indigenous tribes of the region. While the exact date when Greeks started trading in the regions remains unknown, according to historian Thomas S. Noonan, the earliest evidence of trade in grains between Greece and the Black sea region can be traced back to the writings of Herodotus who lived in the 5th century BCE.
Between 9th and the 15th centuries CE, the period to which majority of the recent explorations belonged, the Black sea served as a connecting route between Europe and the Islamic world. It was also the route taken by European travelers and merchants on their way to the Silk Route. Commodities like amber, fur and slaves were commonly transported from Europe, while goods like silk, perfumes, spices and jewellery were imported.
The Black sea was closed to any kind of commercial activities after the Ottoman Turks occupied Constantinople in 1453 and remained so for the next four centuries. It opened up to trade after the treaty of Paris signed in 1856.
Secret behind the preservation of archaeological evidence in the Black sea
When the group of scientists went about exploring in the Black sea, the motive was to understand how humans in prehistoric times reacted to fluctuating ocean levels. The researchers found that the dynamics of sea water temperatures and the corresponding changes in sea levels led to a peculiar quality in the depths of the ocean that preserved the archaeological finds in its near perfect form for over one thousand years; that being an absence of oxygen.
Speaking to the National Geographic, Jon Adams, the principal investigator of the project said that following the ice age that ended 12,000 years back, the Black sea was practically dried up. With the rise in temperatures, ocean levels also rose. Further, there was a simultaneous inflow of saltwater from the Mediterranean sea and freshwater from elsewhere which led to two layers of water forming in the Black sea. The upper level was oxygenated without any salt water, whereas the lower salty level consisted of no oxygen. “The oxygen drops to zero below 150 meters, which is ideal for the preservation of organic materials,” Adams said.
While materials like wood and fibre decay quickly in salt water, the unique property of lack of oxygen in the deep sea water of the Black sea is the secret behind the preservation of even wood carvings and other decorations of these shipwrecks.