Under the Black Sea

Caroline Eden

The world's oldest known intact shipwreck has been found resting on its side at the bottom of the Black Sea by an international team of maritime archaeologists. The 23-metre Greek ship, which sank 2400 years ago, is one of dozens of wrecks found by the group over the past three years.

Below 200 metres, the Black Sea’s oxygen-free water chemistry supports no life and prevents organic decay. ‘The basic fact about the Black Sea which makes it unlike all other seas,’ Neal Ascherson says in Black Sea, is ‘that almost all of it is dead.’ Its depths are the ‘largest mass of lifeless water in the world’.

Most of the wrecks are merchant vessels carrying wine, grain and timber. Some are Ottoman from the 16th to 18th centuries, others are Venetian. One Ancient Roman shipwreck has its mast still standing and the crew’s cooking pots intact. Another 2400-year-old ship was found full of clay storage jars with some of the contents still inside, mainly diced fish steaks. Oar-powered Cossack raiding vessels have also been identified.

Many of the wrecks have been discovered off the coast of Bulgaria, close to Burgas, a seaside resort not far from turbulent headlands known for wrecks and strong weather. In the Globetrotter Travel Guide to Bulgaria, Kapka Kassabova writes:

Many natural and induced shipwrecks occurred along the shores, especially near capes like Shabla, Kaliakra, Emine and Maslen Nos – which means Oily Cape, named after the many Greek olive oil carrying ships that shattered here.

Merchants and mariners have always been wary of the Black Sea. The Ancient Greeks, who began building colonies around it in the eighth century BC, named it Pontos Euxeinos, or ‘hospitable sea’, which was like referring to the Furies as Eumenides, ‘or kindly ones’. According to one proverb, 'the Black Sea has only three safe harbours: July, August and Sinop.’

Byron, having visiting Constantinople in 1810, described the Bosphorus ten years later in Canto 5 of Don Juan:

The wind swept down the Euxine, and the wave
Broke foaming o’er the blue Symplegades.
’Tis a grand sight from off the Giant’s Grave
To watch the progress of those rolling seas
Between the Bosphorus, as they lash and lave
Europe and Asia, you being quite at ease.
There’s not a sea the passenger e’er pukes in,
Turns up more dangerous breakers than the Euxine.

The Symplegades are the mythical clashing rocks that almost crushed Jason and the Argonauts. The Giant’s Grave is Yuşa Tepesi, Joshua’s Hill, by tradition the site of the prophet’s tomb. The 200-metre summit is a landmark for sailors looking for the mouth of the Bosphorus. Across the water, on the European side, is the so-called Tower of Ovid, in Uskumruköy (‘village of the mackerel’), supposedly the place where the poet, exiled by Augustus, was imprisoned before departing for Tomis (now Constanța, on the Romanian coast).

Russian warships travel to and from Syria through the Bosphorus, a routine sight once again, as they were during the Cold War and the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s. With all the turmoil on the surface, there’s something oddly reassuring about the discovery of these ancient ships, preserved for centuries, hundreds of metres below the waves.


  • 27 October 2018 at 6:22pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    A few weeks ago there was a sort of companion piece to this one in the TLS, a review of a book about a bronze/brass cog-wheeled calendrical-cosmological gadget of B.C.E. Greek (or hybrid Greek-somebody else) origins. Maybe some reader of Ms. Eden's piece can explain to us just why the lower depths of the Black Sea are oxygen-free (I assume it has something to do with the origins of the sea itself, but that's just a guess). This is the same sea that the Greek mercenaries celebrated sighting after the "retreat of the ten-thousand" described by Xenophon, an officer on that ill-fated expedition that put Greeks at the service of a Persian aspirant to the throne. Though Xenophon's writing about Greek politics is usually partial to the "aristocratic" point of view, his life as a practical man heavily involved in the politics of several famous city-states, gave us a very different view of Socrates than Plato's. As full of ambiguities and unknowns as it is, Greek writing from this era is still fascinating, especially when it escapes from philosophy.

    • 30 October 2018 at 2:09pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I'm no oceanographer, but as I understand it, lower levels of the Black Sea are anoxic because of the nature of its inflows, and because of the way it exchanges water with the Mediterranean.

      The Black Sea is mostly fed, at the surface, by drainage from Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and so on: about a third of Europe, altogether. This water is only about half as saline as the Mediterranean, and therefore is less dense. It flows out into the Mediterranean, while more saline, denser Mediterranean water flows in through the (relatively) shallow and narrow Bosphorus and Dardenelles.

      Because of this contrast in density, Black Sea water is strongly stratified. The Mediterranean water flows in "underneath" the less-saline outflow, and there is little mixing of the two. Once it flows in, the Mediterranean water, in effect, never sees the light of day again. Millennia ago, probably, organic decay at depth exhausted the oxygen supply there, with no mechanism for it to be renewed.