Black Sea Boats

Aug 15, 2016 | Diggings Online | 0 comments

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The Black Sea is a remarkable body of water; far larger than any lake, it is fed by a number of large rivers including the mighty Danube, the Dniester and the Dnieper – in fact about a third of the Continent of Europe drains into the Black Sea as well as larger areas in southern Russia and northern Asia Minor – yet its only connection to the rest of the world’s oceans is by way of a single narrow passage little larger than a river. Well, actually there are two narrow passages – the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles – but as they are end to end, not side by side, it amounts to the same thing.

The result is that the Black Sea has two distinct layers. Down to about 230-330 feet in the centre you have water that is much less salty than in the average sea, because it has been diluted by all that river water. Beneath this you find cold, heavy, salt water. In the open sea there is considerable vertical mixing because of tidal action and the effect of currents such as the Gulf Stream. In the Black Sea, however, the maximum tide is only about a foot and any currents are on a much smaller scale. In consequence, any mixing which occurs between the two layers is on a scale of centuries – if at all!

This division persists even into the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. During the First World War a British submarine conducted a daring raid into the Sea of Marmara and the captain found that he could take his craft down to this bottom layer and more or less rest there, held up by the dense water. In fact, he found that the Dardanelles have a complex system of currents; dense salt water flows north along the bottom of the straits while light, less salty water flows south out of the Black Sea.

Another curious result from this sharp division is that over the millennia since the Black Sea formed, virtually all the free oxygen in the bottom layer has disappeared. Not only are there no fish in these cold lower layers, but even bacteria cannot survive down there. This fact is responsible for a remarkable find by Robert Ballard, the American Costeau.

Last year an archaeologist put forward the theory that the Bosphorous was formed in historical times and that the resulting inrush of water from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea basin not only caused the level of the sea to rise and flood the former fertile fields but was also responsible for the Biblical story of Noah’s Flood. The first part of the theory is not at all unlikely. Pliny records that within historical times the Bosphorous could still be forded by cattle, which indicates that the initial breach cannot have been all that long before.

That the filling of the Black Sea basin with water could have been responsible for the story of Noah’s Flood is less likely. Although it has been claimed that the Black Sea fits the locale of the the Biblical story, this claim is very dubious. The Biblical story cannot be taken in isolation but must be linked with the Sumerian and Akkadian stories of the Gilgamesh Epic, which place the story of Utnapishtim very firmly in a Mesopotamian setting. The Bible gives no geographical information concerning Noah’s homeland and merely states that the ark came to rest “on the mountains of Ararat”. Mt Ararat, usually identified as the place where the ark lodged, is closer to the headwaters of the Euphrates than to the Black Sea, (and Mt Nisir, which is the resting place of the ark according to the Sumerian account is even further from the Black Sea) which again points to a Mesopotamian connection.

While it is highly likely that the Black Sea did flood in historical or late pre-historical times, whether any folk memory of the event has survived is another question. Nevertheless Ballard and Co. have been searching for evidence to back up their theory. They have located an ancient shoreline at a depth of 550 feet and radio carbon dating of shells associated with this beach gives a date of approximately 5,500 BC. This is the basis for their claim that the Black Sea basin flooded 7,500 years ago.

They also located a wooden structure on a gentle slope between two ancient and submerged river beds which they identified as associated with the flooding of the area. A rectangle 36 feet long and 12 feet wide, consisting of a hewn beam and a number of branches, appeared to form the walls and rafters of a large building which, the team theorised, would have had wattle and daub walls – a matting of woven twigs and thin branches plastered with mud.

Although the structure was only 311 feet beneath the surface and thus not within the anaerobic layers of the Black Sea, it still appeared to be well preserved – too well preserved, as the latest assessment of the structure by archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert of the University of Pennsylvania is that it is only about 200 years old and is formed of random bits of timber that accidentally sank on the site.

However near the supposed structure Ballard’s team has found a wooden ship 650 feet down that is astonishingly well preserved. The 35 foot mast is still upright in its place and the deck planking is well preserved. At first they dismissed the wreck as modern and therefore of less interest, but nonetheless took samples of the timber for dating. Carbon-14 dating showed that the 45 foot long ship is about 1,500 years old, which means that it sank between 410 and 520 AD.

Such a well-preserved wreck poses problems of its own. Much of the ship is covered by silt, hiding any cargo the ship may have carried, but we may assume that there is the usual collection of amphorae and other objects. The question is, how can they be retrieved without damaging the ship’s planking? Although there must be a hatchway in the deck, the wood surrounding it is fragile and will inevitably be damaged by divers banging against it with their tanks of air.

One way round the problem would be to dismantle the ship, but this also poses problems. Shipbuilders of the time did not lay down a framework which they then covered with planks, but instead formed the hull out of planks inside which ribs were laid as strengthening. Remove the planks and there is nothing to hold the ribs together. It is highly likely that if substantial portions of the decking is removed, the sides of the ship, with nothing to hold them together, will fall outwards, suffering untold damage in the process.

A possible clue for how to proceed may come from three other wrecks which were found nearby. These were not so deep and their timber has suffered considerable damage from worms and borers. Cargoes of carrot-shaped amphorae, typical of merchandise from Sinope, can be seen and divers who go down to retrieve them will also be able to study the construction of the ships.

Ballard intends to return to the seas off Sinope and Bulgaria in future years with the hope of being able to excavate the ships. He also wants to bring heavy lifting gear that will enable him to raise some of the large lumps of wood and stone at the site of the supposed building. He still hopes that examination at the surface will show that they bear traces of being worked by human hands, thus confirming that the structure is a building.

“We now need to go back to the Black Sea and expand our efforts to prove or disprove that people once lived on land that’s now underwater,'” Ballard said. Diggings will watch his efforts with interest – and with scepticism. That people may have lived in the Black Sea basin is not unlikely; that one of them was Noah is, in our opinion, improbable in the extreme.

March 2001

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