Black Sea Shipwreck Research Project Synopsis
One of the most exciting areas in the world for underwater archaeology today is the Black Sea, which, throughout human history, has been the site of some of the most important trade routes and avenues of cultural exchange. As the field of underwater archaeology matures, many countries around the world have been racing to their shores to discover their own underwater cultural heritages. One such country is Ukraine where the Kiev National Taras Shevchenko University has established the Centre for Underwater Archaeology (CUA). CUA's primary project is the Black Sea Shipwreck Research Project (BSSRP), which surveys and excavates shipwrecks around the Ukrainian coasts, mostly along the Crimean peninsula.
This season's BSSRP investigations have a much broader focus than previous years, as they continue to both excavate and survey shipwrecks on the southeastern coasts of the Crimean peninsula. The 2006 season focused on the excavation of the thirteenth-century Novy Svet shipwreck, known as the Pisa Wreck because of its tentative identification as a Pisan ship that was sunk by the Genoese on August 14, 1277, in sight of the nearby fortress of Sudak. The account of the naval battle can be found in a manuscript by Obertus Stanconus, a Genoese crusader-chronicler. The Genoese played an important role in the Black Sea during later Byzantine times after they displaced the Venetians in the role as the middlemen between the Byzantine Empire and the Western Mediterranean and Europe.
In 2007, the expedition's divers started the season by finishing excavations of the Novy Svet shipwreck. They work 10 m underwater in a 150 m square area of artifact spread about 100 m offshore from the resort town of Novy Svet. The area was known as a shipwreck site before excavations started because of the broken pottery that would wash up on the shore, but it wasn't until Dr. Sergiy Zelenko of the CUA started conducting surveys of the area in 1999 that the precise location of the wreck was found. From 2002 to the present, his team has been excavating the wreck site, recovering pottery, marble, worked stone, glass, iron and bronze tackles, coins, and even some fragmentary hull remains.
The pottery consists of five types of amphorae, dating to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, pithoi, table and kitchen ware that may have been meant to be sold in sets, and glazed pottery. Analysis of the residue within the amphorae has reveal that they contained oils, grains, incense, and pitch or tar. The assemblage of glazed pottery also dates from the thirteenth century to the beginning of the fourteenth. There are about 50 pieces of a type of glazed ware that is rarely represented in such quantities and varieties in other excavations. This type of glazed ware is now known as the Novy Svet Group. A hoard of silver coins found on the wreck site also helps date the wreck to the thirteenth century.
The artifacts that lend the most credence to the identification of it as the Pisa ship are the pieces of melted glass that are frequently brought up from the wreck, as well some burnt potsherds. The wooden pieces of the hull are small owing to the destructive nature of the sinking and to the violent winter storms that would batter a wooden hull against the rocky shores. Now the team is searching along the edge of the site, going as deep as 14 m, trying to learn more about the cargo and the ship.
Another interesting aspect of this site is that the thirteenth-century shipwreck is not the only shipwreck found there. Partly underlying the Pisa Wreck is a Byzantine wreck dated to the eleventh century. Among the excavated items from the wreck is a coin assemblage dating to the rule of Emperor Nicephorus III Botaneiates (1078-1081). Also found on the site are two types of amphorae dating to the same period. Dr. Zelenko hypothesizes that the amphorae contained oil and were produced in the northern Black Sea region. This season's excavations hopefully will reveal more about this vessel and its cargo.
After finishing up the Novy Svet wreck site, the team will be going back into survey mode. They will be surveying an area around the Meganom promontory on the eastern side of the Bay of Sudak. Using side scan sonar equipment as well as human eyes, they hope to find shipwrecks from any part of the area's past; modern, medieval, or ancient.
The CUA's BSSRP is not the only underwater archaeological activity that has occurred on the Ukrainian shores of the Black Sea, or even around the Crimea. Surveys conducted in the Black Sea have discovered sites from every period of human history, from prehistoric settlements dating to the time when the Black Sea was a freshwater lake to military vessels from the twentieth century. Around the Crimean peninsula, surveys have discovered wrecks dating to the Crimean War, which was fought by the British and the French on behalf of the Turks against the Russians. The Crimean War holds little importance for most Americans who remember it vaguely as a page in their world history textbooks or as the subject of "The Charge of the Light Brigade," but it is an important episode in Ukrainian and Eastern European military history.
In the 1960s, when underwater archaeology was only beginning to achieve status as a legitimate part of archaeology, an interesting wreck was found off of Eupatoria on the coast of the Western Crimea. The wreck was identified by its finder, Dr. Vladimir Blavatsky of the Institute of Archaeology of the USSR, as an ancient Greek shipwreck dating to the fourth century B.C. Found in a 1963 survey using a borrowed navy research vessel, the wreck site was 4-9 m underwater and consisted mostly of amphorae, but further excavation in 1964-1965 revealed important aspects of the ship's construction. An ancient Greek vessel may seem out of place in the Crimea, but even in Archaic and Classical times the Black Sea was serving as an important route connecting the people of the Mediterranean to the people of Northern Europe and Asia. The ancient Greeks had explored and even colonized in the eastern Crimea around the Kimmerian Bosporus by the seventh century B.C. The Southern and Western part of the Crimea, however, known as Taurica, was not inhabited until the fourth century B.C. owing to the hostile reputation of the local people, the Taurians, who were infamous in Greek mythology and history for sacrificing shipwrecked sailors to their version of Artemis. But by the fourth century, the Greek community had established a foothold in the region, especially along the coasts where they participated in trade with the rest of the Black Sea and even the Mediterranean. This particular wreck contained several different types of amphorae, all of which were produced in Herakleia Ponticos in the fourth and third centuries B.C. Thirteen of the 20 amphorae raised from the wreck even had stamps specifying the name of the manufacturer. These vessels were probably filled with wine. Along with the cargo, the divers found wooden and metal pieces of the ship's hull. The wooden pieces consisted of some side planks and a piece of a frame, while the metal pieces included bronze (copper) nails and pieces of the lead sheathing that would have protected the hull below the waterline from the wood-devouring teredo worm and rot.
From these few examples of surveys and excavations in the Black Sea around Ukraine, it is easily seen that the area has an incredibly rich underwater archaeological and cultural heritage. Projects such as the BSSRP have only scratched the surface of the incredible archaeology of the Black Sea around the Crimea. It is an exciting time to be working in this area, as excavations uncover answers to old questions, new questions that challenge long held assumptions, and information from the submerged past that fills out our knowledge of long forgotten peoples and cultures.
Claire Aliki Collins is a second-year graduate student in underwater archaeology at Texas A&M University.