Scientists discover a 2,400-year-old sunken ship that changes how we view the ancient world

As you probably know, almost three-fourths of our planet is covered by oceans, but were you aware that only five percent of the world’s oceans have been explored? The vast majority of our planet is as alien to us as outer space. More alien, actually, as we’ve mapped out our galaxy and have even ventured beyond the confines of the Milky Way into the far reaches of space.

It’s hard to imagine what lies in wait for us down there, more than a mile below sea level. There’s one thing we know for sure is down there, though – our history. In places like the Black Sea, shipwrecks from the days of Greece and Rome are lying on the bottom of the sea, so far below the surface that they have been perfectly preserved. One team of explorers stumbled onto such a ship recently, which may change the way we look at the ancient world.

A distant blip

Somewhere out in the Black Sea, a body of water shared by several Eastern European and Western Asian countries, a group of scientists was carefully monitoring the sea floor. Safely aboard their ship, they were intently watching a screen, when suddenly the silence was pierced by a new sound – a blip.

Rubbing their eyes in disbelief, they looked closer, but there was no mistaking it. Their underwater scanner had pinged something in the sea’s deepest, darkest depths, more than a mile beneath their feet. Wasting no time at all, they had to find out what it was.

Going back to the ice age

The group of intrepid scientists was presided over by Professor Jon Adams. He may (almost) share a name with the second president of the United States, but this English academic was as far removed from politics as you could imagine. An archeology professor at the University of Southampton, Adams and his team were carrying out geophysical surveys of landscapes hundreds and thousands of feet underwater.

What did this mean? Well, since 2015, Adams’ team scoured almost 6,000 feet below the Black Sea’s surface, at a depth unseen by human eyes since the end of the last ice age. Sadly, that status quo will continue, as humans can’t get below a recommended depth of 130 feet, so Adams needed something else…

State of the art tech

Luckily, the team didn’t have to count on human divers to get the job done – they had something else to do the dirty work. Their vessel, peacefully floating in the Black Sea’s waters, hid some of the best underwater technology and equipment modern science has to offer. For starters, they had at their disposal two Remotely Operated Vehicles, or ROVs, which they would send down to the seafloor.

These ROVs, armed with bright lights, high-def cameras, and a laser scanner, would then send images of what they found back up to the main vessel. As someone with a keen interest in the ethics of deepwater archeology, a field still in its infancy, Adams was about to turn theory into practice.

Discovering a lost world

Mapping out regions that far deep below sea level carried its very own fascination, but that was far from the end of the scope of the mission undertaken by Adams and his men and women. The team, in fact, was thinking bigger. Much, much bigger. If they had their way, they would discover – or rediscover, to be exact – a world that has been hidden for not just centuries, but millennia.

This world, forgotten by mankind with the inevitable passage of time, was still down there, waiting for them – or for anyone else clever and brave enough to risk finding it. And through that world, the team hoped to gain some insight into the life of prehistoric man.

Shipwrecks from days gone by

And so, for the past three seasons this group of scientists has been busy mapping out the expanses of the Black Sea, covering more than 800 miles of seafloor and collecting upwards of 300 feet of sediment samples from several archeological hotbeds. Soon enough, their work started bearing fruit. Throughout the course of their mission, they had discovered more than 60 shipwreck sites from different historical epochs.

Some sites dated as far back as ancient Greece and Rome, and they all had one thing in common – they contained artifacts and specimens preserved to an amazing degree. The reason was simple – that far underwater there was very little oxygen, meaning anything down there remained virtually untouched by the ravages of time.

A moment frozen in time

In the third season, they had finally hit jackpot. In just the last few weeks of their marine exploration, they located 20 new shipwreck sites thousands of feet below.

These were no ordinary finds – some of the ships still had their masts upright, rudders in one piece, and even sailors’ various bits and bobs scattered across the deck. This was big. Up to this point, ships’ anatomy and equipment could only be seen in museums, painted on vases or described in literature. The best, however, was yet to come.

The anomaly

The best had indeed come in late 2017, just as they were about to get ready to pack it in for the season. Idling right off the coast of Bulgaria, it started out normally enough, as any other day of surveying had.

Things took a turn for the exciting, however, when their ROV deep below broadcast back images of something even they, seasoned pros that they were, had never seen before. At first, they could only describe it as an anomaly, but what it actually was soon came into focus.

Buried a mile beneath the surface

They could not believe their eyes, but there it was – a ship, 75 feet long, half-buried and lying on its side, nearly a mile below the surface. It was so perfectly preserved, with mast and rowing benches in pristine condition, that it seemed like it would bolt upright without warning, and just sail away.

Brendan Foley, a marine archeologist, explained that the “usual critters” that break apart wood and other organic material can’t survive in an environment without oxygen, placing ships in something like a “big pickle jar.”

Odysseus’ ship?

Images from photos and video taken by the ROV gave the team some hints as to the ship’s possible origin. Every indication showed it to be a vessel powered by its sails and oar-wielding rowers, with the most probable country of origin being Ancient Greece.

In fact, the ship’s features looked remarkably similar to the ones found on the Greek trading vessel so famously depicted on the “Siren Vase,” which is housed in London’s British Museum, and shows Odysseus tied to the mast as mythical Sirens sing all around him.

A mysterious vase

This wrinkle in the discovery was unexpected. Could a ship found a mile underwater in the Black Sea somehow be related to the fabled hero of Homer’s epic? The answer is unclear.

The identity of Homer himself had never been discovered, but it’s believed the Odyssey was written sometime in the 8th century BCE in Anatolia, then part of Greece. Odysseus may or may not have been based on a real king, but the vase showing his story – likely created in Athens between 480 and 470 BCE – is real enough.

Taking a sample

Whether or not the sunken ship had anything to do with Odysseus was besides the point for the moment, and Adams’ team had to start by getting more details about the vessel – as many as they could considering they couldn’t physically reach it themselves.

Once again, the ROV came into play and played its part magnificently. The researchers above used the submersible below to break off a small piece from the ship so it could be carbon dated. Getting the test results back, even these stoic academics were flabbergasted.

Undisturbed for millennia

Carbon dating is the process of determining a certain organic material’s age, with a usual margin of error of less than a century, making it a fairly accurate way to assess the age of something very old.

In the case of the fragment taken from the sunken ship, carbon dating showed it was created around 400 BCE – the same century, incidentally, Odysseus’ vase was created in. More importantly, however, it meant that the ship had been on the bottom of the sea, undisturbed and perfectly preserved, for over 4,200 years!

Oldest intact shipwreck in history

If the ship was truly 2,400 years old, that meant another thing, and this was truly earth-shattering for the scientists. It was the oldest intact marine vessel ever found!

Adams said he never would have believed they would find a ship in such amazing condition, as if it was sent forward in time from the ancient world to the present. Older fragments had been found before, one was even said to be 3,000 years old, but no complete ship had ever been found in that state.

What it might teach us

Besides how cool such a discovery was, it may hold a lot of valuable historical and archeological data. Considering the state the ship was in, Adams’ team had more than a little hope that it would be able to teach them about the Ancient Greeks’ seafaring ways.

After all, the Black Sea, called the “Inhospitable Sea” by the Greeks, is pretty far from mainland Greece, meaning the merchants operating the vessel were a long way from home. Trying to discover how they got there, and why, was a fascinating task.

How it sank

One very, very interesting question still remained, however – how did the vessel actually sink? While it was impossible to know for sure, Adams and his team had a working theory.

The ship had hit rough weather, they theorized, and was caught in a terrible storm that likely flooded the ship’s deck. When the ship’s crew, estimated to have been only 15 to 25 men, could not bail water overboard fast enough, it went down. Soon, however, we might know for sure – the sinking’s cause and much more.

The location to remain secret

With the advance of technology, Foley said, exploring the planet’s deep oceans will become easier – and cheaper. That means scientists will be able to cover more ground in less time, eventually even mapping out the entire Black Sea’s basin, and discovering ever shipwreck.

Until that happens, however, Adams and his crew plan to leave their find exactly where it is, and tell no one the exact coordinates. Bringing it to the surface is possible, but it would require taking it apart – something they don’t want them – or anyone else – doing.

Unearthing the past

At the end of the day, Adams said this particular ship’s discovery, as well as that of any other vessel still lurking on the sea floor, will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.

There is much we already know, and yet so much remains to be discovered. While no sea monsters are waiting down there (probably), valuable lessons about our collective history as a species are, as we made our first steps out to sea. Today, the past doesn’t have to remain dead and buried…

Looking to the past, for the future

The Black Sea Maritime Archeology Project (M.A.P.) has a lot it could teach us about the lives of the people living in that part of the planet all those years ago. The knowledge they’re gathering shouldn’t be considered strictly the domain of academics in stuffy university halls, however.

What they learn about how the region’s people coped with changing sea levels, and how they were connected to one another by trade, can illuminate the way we do things today. And maybe, just maybe, it can inspire change.

Going back to the dawn of man

The M.A.P. team’s discoveries were a little like hopping into a time machine. Throughout their searches, Adams and his team began by uncovering relatively new ships dating to the 19th century.

Going a little farther back in time, they uncovered vessels from the Ottoman Empire, and the Byzantine Empire that preceded it. Going even farther back, they discovered Roman ships and, finally, the Greek ship thought to have been sailed during Aristotle’s lifetime. What’s next? Adams hopes to uncover ships from the Neolithic period, 12,000 years ago.

The Flood connection

Apart from unearthing ancient ships, the M.A.P. team sought to examine a very interesting theory. The project was also aimed at trying to understand changes to the Black Sea’s levels after the last ice age.

One theory floated (no pun intended) to explain away this phenomenon suggested that the Black Sea was suddenly inundated with waters from the Mediterranean. This, the theory says, gave rise to the famous biblical story of the Flood and Noah’s Ark. However, M.A.P.’s researchers couldn’t find proof for it.

Philanthropists wanted

You might be wondering who’s footing the bill for such a colossal undertaking. Well, the Black Sea M.A.P. project receives little public funds. Even though it has partnered with several universities, in Britain, Sweden, and the United States, it relies mainly on donation money to keep the lights on – and the ROVs underwater!

To put things into perspective, just one day of full M.A.P. operations costs the equivalent of $127,500! That’s more than the cost of a slightly used Aston Martin, every single day.

The Odyssey tablet

Ironically enough, the Greek ship Adams and his crew found wasn’t the only archeological discovery related to Odysseus that came to light in 2018.

Another discovery, which Archaeology magazine named one of the Top 10 Discoveries of 2018 along with that of the ship, was the unearthing of a tablet found in Olympia, Greece. What was so special about a simple clay tablet? Well, it was inscribed with 13 verses from Homer’s Odyssey, the story of Odysseus and his epic journey.

The oldest copy of the Odyssey?

The Odyssey tablet dated back to the Roman era, to around the 3rd century CE or a little earlier, and was found alongside other Roman-era artifacts near a sanctuary in ancient Olympia.

The tablet, it turned out, was the oldest surviving excerpt from the Odyssey’s 14th book, and was the first example of the epic poem being inscribed onto a tablet. It may even be the oldest sample of one of Homer’s poem found on Greek soil in general!

The first analogue computer

Ancient Greek ships aren’t the only thing found underwater. Around Easter, 1900, a group of Greek divers happened to discover a shipwreck on their way to their fishing grounds. They found marble and bronze statues, among other more or less identifiable items.

Two years later, in 1902, an archeologist working in Athens realized that one corroded piece of metal actually had a gear wheel attached to it. Known later as the Antikythera mechanism, it’s considered the first analogue computer in history and was used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses.

The real-life Atlantis

We’ve seen an analogue computer, huge statues, and even ships, but what about entire cities? No, not the legendary city of Atlantis. In 1933, a British pilot flying over Egypt noticed some ruins in the water below.

Almost seven decades later, in 1999, his sighting led to the discovery of not one but two sunken cities – Heracleion and Canopus! These Egyptian cities, said to have sank due to repeated earthquakes and rising sea levels, contained untold riches for archeologists. Only about five percent of them has been explored so far.