As ancient people began to develop civilizations, or urban settlements with complex ways of life, extensive trade routes formed and connected communities throughout the Mediterranean region. The eastern Mediterranean and Black seas became essential marine highways of trade and travel in the ancient world. By exploring shipwrecks from this region, researchers learn more about the culture and history of the people who lived there. Certain goods, trade routes, artifacts, and shipbuilding techniques discovered have been linked to the traditions of the ancient Greeks (1000 BCE) and even the ancient Egyptians (4000 BCE).
Archaeology is the study of human history using the material remains, or artifacts, of a culture, which include objects that humans created, modified, or used. Maritime archaeologists study artifacts and sites submerged in lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Maritime archaeologists studying shipwrecks often work with oceanographers like Dr. Robert Ballard so they can explore wrecks in the deep ocean, including those in the Black Sea. While many land-based archaeological finds have already been studied, the ocean depths contain countless new sites and artifacts yet to be discovered.
When a shipwreck is found, archaeologists determine the historical time period it came from by identifying key artifacts. Due to very low oxygen levels in the Black Sea, artifacts are often better preserved there than those found in other parts of the ocean or on land. These preserved artifacts include objects like wood, fabric, and bone, which are often easily decomposed, or broken down, especially in the upper layers of the ocean. The benefit of discovering preserved organic, or carbon-based, artifacts is that after they are excavated, radiocarbon dating can be used to determine the age of the remains and therefore the era of the wreck. In addition, DNA can often be extracted and used to determine the origin of the artifact, and in the case of human bones and teeth, who the ancient mariners were and where they came from.
At no more than two thousand years old, most of the shipwrecks found in the Mediterranean region date from CE. However, a unique shipwreck discovered by Ballard’s team in the Black Sea is an exception to that rule. Found in 100 meters (328 feet) of relatively shallow water, the Eregli E shipwreck is located off Turkey’s northern coast and the town of Eregli, which was part of the ancient Greek trading empire. Clay jars, or amphorae, that were used to transport goods like olive oil, grain, and wine were found at the site and provide an age estimate of 2,500 years old. This means the ship was trading during the Classical Greek period of the fourth and fifth centuries BCE.
Wood and bone artifacts have also been found on the relatively well-preserved Eregli E wreck site. Sewn triangles and mortise and tenon joints are evident on some of the wood at the site. Such shipbuilding methods date back to the ancient Egyptians (4000 BCE) and were used to fasten the ship’s hull planks together, providing structure and strength to the vessel. If DNA can be extracted from the wood and bones that were found on the site, the Eregli E shipwreck could provide information about ancient shipbuilding and traded goods, as well as information about the heritage and point of origin of the ship’s crew. According to Ballard, the Eregli E is the most well-preserved shipwreck from Classical Greek civilization discovered thus far. If such a well-preserved wreck can be found in relatively shallow water, he can only imagine how many more Black Sea shipwrecks are waiting to be explored to reveal the history and culture of the Mediterranean region’s ancient civilizations.
What are two benefits of discovering preserved organic artifacts, such as wood and bone, in shipwrecks?
List at least two ancient civilizations that could be associated with Mediterranean shipwrecks dating to more than two thousand years old (BCE)?
List at least two reasons why the Eregli E shipwreck discovered by Dr. Robert Ballard and his team is such a unique and important archaeological site.
- Archaeology was first recognized as a formal discipline of science about 150 years ago. Maritime archaeology is an even younger science, formally recognized in the 1960s with excavations of shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
- The average depth of the Black Sea is 1,250 meters (4,100 feet), with its deepest point at approximately 2,210 meters (7,250 feet). The main reason it has little to no oxygen in its deeper layers is because its upper and lower layers do not mix. This prevents oxygen from the atmosphere getting to deeper layers.
- Today, mortise and tenon joints are used mostly in the fine furniture and cabinetry industry, not in shipbuilding.
- The British Museum: Geography—Ancient Greece
- The British Museum: Geography—Ancient Egypt
- National Geographic: Alien Deep Interactive—Explore the Floors of our Ocean Planet
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry amphora Noun
large, oval-shaped storage vessel with two handles, often used in antiquity.
ancient Egypt Noun
civilization in northeastern Africa, lasting from 3200 BCE to about 400 CE.
study of human history, based on material remains.
Encyclopedic Entry: archaeology artifact Noun
material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.
(Before the Common Era) designation for the years before the year 1, or 1 CE.
Common Era. CE designates the years following 1 BCE, including the current year.
complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.
Encyclopedic Entry: civilization decomposition Noun
separation of a chemical compound into elements or simpler compounds.
(deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule in every living organism that contains specific genetic information on that organism.
study of the ocean.
Encyclopedic Entry: oceanography radiocarbon dating Noun
to estimate the age of an organism by tracking the decay of the isotope carbon-14. Also called carbon-dating.
remotely operated vehicle.
method of determining the presence and location of an object using sound waves (echolocation).
This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1114251. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.