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This Ancient Greek Vessel is the World’s Oldest Intact Shipwreck

Lack of oxygen perfectly preserved this 2,400-year-old shipwreck in the Black Sea.
An Ancient Greek ship at the bottom of the Black Sea was digitally mapped by two remote underwater vehicles.

An Ancient Greek ship at the bottom of the Black Sea was digitally mapped by two remote underwater vehicles.

Off the Bulgarian coast, just over a mile beneath the surface of the Black Sea, archaeologists have discovered what they believe is the world’s oldest intact shipwreck.

Measuring some 75 feet (23 meters) long, the ship is thought to be an ancient Greek trading vessel. With its mast still standing, and its rudders and rowing benches still in place, it has lain undisturbed on the ocean floor for more than 2,400 years.

Long an important trade route between Europe and Asia, the Black Sea was particularly so in the ancient world, when Greek ships sailed from the Mediterranean carrying goods to its many colonies lining the Black Sea coast.

An Anglo-Bulgarian team from the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP) discovered the intact shipwreck as part of its three-year mission to explore the Black Sea’s depths and understand prehistoric sea-level changes that still have an impact today. Using sonar as well as deep-sea diving robots, the team has turned up more than 60 wrecks, including Roman trading ships and a Cossack trading fleet dating to the 17th century.

“There are ships down there that have never been seen, apart from in murals and paintings and in books, and these are the first time they have been seen since they were afloat,” Edward Parker, CEO of Black Sea MAP, told the Guardian.

Siren Vase

The ancient Siren Vase displaying the ship of Odysseus

Fans of classical literature and art might recognize the newly discovered vessel as the type painted on ancient Greek pottery, particularly wine vases. One famous example is the Siren Vase, now held in the British Museum; it dates to around 480 B.C. It shows the Homeric hero Odysseus strapped to the mast of his ship as it sailed past the sirens, the sea nymphs who according to Greek mythology were said to lure sailors onto the rocks with their bewitching songs.

The ship has remained so well preserved because the waters around it are anoxic, or completely devoid of oxygen. Otherwise, like most ancient shipwrecks, it would have been eroded or damaged by marine animals and bacteria over centuries on the ocean floor.

Though they removed a small piece of the ship to be carbon-dated, which confirmed its advanced age, the Black Sea MAP team left the shipwreck where they found it. Helen Farr, a member of the team, told BBC News that she and her colleagues need funding if they are to return to the vessel to investigate the contents of its hold, which they believe have also been preserved relatively intact, and could help them pinpoint where the ship sailed from.

“It's like another world," Farr said of her team’s startling discovery. “It’s when the ROV [remote operated vehicle] drops down through the water column and you see this ship appear in the light at the bottom so perfectly preserved it feels like you step back in time."

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