Black Sea Archeology

An ancient amphora taken from the floor of the Black Sea last northern summer has provided the first direct evidence of an ancient trade route in the region.

The clay vessel, about the size of a modern 200-litre drum, was made near Sinop, Turkey, on the southern coast of the Black Sea and was packed with salted fish from the northern coast. Its destination was the sunny shores of Greece, where the amphora would be refilled with olive oil or wine for shipment back to the Black Sea, said oceanographer Robert Ballard of the Institute for Exploration at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.

Radiocarbon dating of the contents show the ship carrying the amphora sank between the fifth and third centuries BC, making it the oldest shipwreck ever found in the region.

Researchers are excited by the findings because the Black Sea, which played a key role in the development of Western culture, was off-limits to explorers for decades during the Cold War until the break-up of the Soviet Union.

"We're finally getting a chance to piece together what happened there over many centuries," said archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert, of the University of Pennsylvania.

The Black Sea is expected to be a fertile hunting ground for marine archaeologists because, unlike other large bodies of water, it contains no oxygen at depths greater than about 200 metres. All the oxygen once there was consumed by the disintegration of organic matter, and there is no water circulation to restore it. "That means there is no marine life, particularly nothing that can eat wooden ships,".

The team has already discovered several wooden ships that appear to be well preserved. The amphora, however, came from a wreck in much shallower waters, about 90 metres. Pictures of the site show only the cargo, a layer of 20 to 30 amphoras sitting atop what appears to be a second layer. Speculation is that some of the ship's structure may have been preserved in the mud.
When the team opened the amphora, they found that it contained fish bones atop a layer of resin that had either been used as a sealant or that was left in the jar by a previous cargo of wine. Ichthyologists determined that the fish were large, freshwater catfish that most likely were harvested on the northern shore's Crimean Peninsula. Marks on the bones indicated that they had been cut up into dried fish steaks, called tarichos in ancient Greek. The dating showed they were 2490 to 2280 years old.

The ancient Greek geographer Strabo wrote that some of Greece's supply of tarichos was imported from the Black Sea region near the Crimea.

Last summer's expedition was conducted with a remote-controlled Bulgarian submersible.