The Pisa Wreck: Introduction
Italian merchants--primarily Genoese, Venetian, and Pisan--conducted a lucrative trade for centuries via the Crimea in luxury goods from the Near East, as well as agricultural products and slaves from the Eurasian steppe. The Italian settlements in Crimea thrived on this trade. Contemporary sources claim that the Genoese colony at Sudak in Crimea became so prosperous that the Black Sea itself was referred to as the "Sudakski Sea" in thirteenth-century documents, and the Genoese colony of Kaffa was said to rival Genoa herself in wealth. Some of the hundreds of Italian ships that carried out this trade were undoubtedly lost along the Crimean coastline. Violent winter storms and navigational hazards plague the area, but some of the losses were through deliberate human action. Whether by naval warfare or piracy, the Italian merchant empires had battled one another for dominance in the Black Sea since the seventh century when Arab invaders entered the Mediterranean, forcing Europeans to seek alternative trade routes with the Near East.
Remains of a ship have been found in western part of the Sudak Bay, near the Crimean resort town of Novy Svet. The shipwreck site is located 50 meters offshore and at a depth of 10-12 meters. The debris field extends over a 60 by 60 meter area of gravel-sand sea floor covered with numerous fragments of ceramics. A group of underwater archaeologists from Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University began exploring this area in 1999. During surveys they discovered an area with a high concentration of archaeological material preliminarily dating to the thirteenth century A.D.: pottery, glass, worked stones and marble pieces, iron and bronze tackles, small finds, and animal bones. At this time the Center for Underwater Archaeology (CUA) was founded within Kyiv National University in order to perform underwater archaeology activities in Ukraine and abroad. Under the center's leadership, the Black Sea Shipwrecks Research Project (BSSRP) was enacted to survey for, investigate, and excavate shipwrecks along the northern coast of the Black Sea. The goal was to identify shipwrecks dating from Classical Greek periods to medieval times. In 2000, ARCHAEOLOGY's Kristin Romney launched the original Interactive Dig for this project, detailing one of the initial surveys on the wreck. Now you can see how my team--composed of students, Megan Goetsch, Kim Koper, Gab Miller, and Hilary Smith--and I carry the torch this summer as we join the BSSRP in its third season of excavation on the shipwreck at Novy Svet.
The regular excavations of the site started under the direction of Sergey Zelenko and the CUA in 2003 with the intention to collect more artifacts for sampling, determine if remains of the hull could be found, and to determine just how the ship may have sunk. I joined the BSSRP for four weeks during the summer of 2005, and so far we have yet to uncover any preserved sections of hull. If wooden remains of the ship do exist they most likely lie up to two meters under the matrix of sand and gravel that constitutes the sea floor. While the proximity of the site to the shore has undoubtedly disturbed and damaged the remains of the ship through wave action and storm surges over the centuries, chances of preservation of organic remains beneath the sea floor in this area are still quite high.
Progress was slow in past seasons because only two teams of divers could dive for 45 minutes once or twice a day depending on weather conditions. In addition, the site is rather remote and transportation of all diving gear to our dive platform was done every day on foot through a winding single-track hiking trail popular among the beach-going tourists. The heavy labor left most team members exhausted before diving had even begun. This year, as we dig deeper into the sand and gravel we will do so not on traditional scuba tanks, but with air supplied from a hookah compressor. The hookah (or surface supplied air compressor) is an independent floating gasoline powered machine that feeds four air hoses to divers down to 40 feet. We can work up to three hours on a single tank of gas. This equipment, generously donated by the manufacturer, Airline by J. Sink, weighs only 55lbs and will be much easier to transport than the four sets of scuba gear formerly needed to outfit our team for each dive.
Since 2003, a significant collection of archaeological material has been retrieved from the shipwreck site. Based on this evidence, the ship was loaded with pithoi and amphorae (ceramic storage and transport vessels), table and kitchenware, glass items, and glazed pottery. Amphorae are the most numerous and varied group of the ship's cargo. There are five types of amphorae in the collection and they have been dated to the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries. Pine stoppers sealed the majority of the amphorae and analyses of the residues within reveal that containers contained vegetable oil, olive oil, grains, incense, and pitch or tar. Counterparts of these types occur in Turkey and the southern regions of the Black Sea.
The assemblage of glazed pottery contains approximately 50 intact objects and many more small fragments of various types of bowls, plates, small jars, cups, etc. This collection is unique because similar artifacts--especially in such amount and variety--occur only rarely in terrestrial sites. The vessels were found in certain proportions and types that may indicate sets of tableware, which were brought to the Black Sea for commercial purposes. Many examples of graffiti were found on walls and handles of amphorae and on the bases on glaze ware. Some vessels also were stamped. Specialists have dated most of the glazeware from the thirteenth to beginning of the fourteenth century. They have preliminarily localized the production area of the glazed pottery to Nicea (a northwestern Anatolian kingdom established by a Byzantine emperor in exile after Constantinople fell to the crusaders in 1204).
In addition, there are many signs of fire--a lot of burnt fragments of pottery and wood and melted glaze and metal--throughout the entire area. The evidence of burning on the ship in addition to a contemporary narrative source has sparked the most interesting development in the understanding of this shipwreck. The document--written by the Genoese crusader-chronicler, Obertus Stanconus--describes in vivid detail the final journey of a certain Pisan galley, nicknamed the "Pisa Ship." After a skirmish with the Genoese in Constantinople, the armed Pisan galley moved into the southern Black Sea to to strike Geneose interests in the area. However, soon the hunter became the hunted as a nearby Genoese galley pursued the Pisa ship north. They met at Sudak, where a naval battle ensued on August 14, 1277. The Genoese were victorious and burned the Pisan ship in full view of the residents of Sudak, just five km from our site. Our findings have so far supported the hypothesis that we have found the "Pisa Ship." (Click here for the Battle Description.)
For centuries she has lain on the bottom of the bay, a nameless field of debris and ceramics. Now we are working to restore her identity and make sure that 729 years later, we can raise her from the pages of history to tell her story with her own artifacts. Follow along with us as the story unfolds. Who knows what secrets the Pisa Ship still holds?