In 2016, the Expedition and Education Foundation, an anonymous charitable organization established to support marine research, funded the University of Southampton’s Black Sea Maritime Archeological (MAP) Project, the largest project “of its type ever undertaken.” This project was designed to survey the Bulgarian waters of the Black Sea, where thousands of years ago, large areas of land were submerged due to rising sea levels as the last ice age was ending.
The Black Sea was much smaller 12,000 years ago, and the project was designed to study what significant historical treasures were inundated by water, as glaciers melted and sea levels rose, and how these rising waters affected the human populations along the shorelines of the Black Sea.
John Adams, of the University of Southampton, led the team of archeologists and researchers in this study. The main instruments used to map the Black Sea floor were two specially designed ROVs or remote operated (underwater) vehicles. These ROVs are basically tethered underwater devices with instrument arrays, and are unoccupied and highly maneuverable. They are operated remotely from the mother ship, in this case, the Stril Explorer. On this expedition, MAP archaeologists lowered the two ROV’s to hunt for ancient shipwrecks and lost history.
When interviewed, Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz of the University of Southampton said he was watching the monitors one night in September when the ROV lit up a large wreck in a high state of preservation. “I was speechless,” he said. “When I saw the ropes, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I still can’t.” He was describing a beautifully carved, perfectly intact rudder with a coil of ropes hanging off one of the ships timbers. At the depths of this discovery, the oxygen levels are so low as to prevent any microorganisms from feeding on the wood timbers.
The remarkable color images of these wrecks are a result of the union of the ROV’s 2D images and cutting edge software, which uses photogrammetry, turning thousands of 2D images into 3D renderings. These are translated into the phenomenal final renderings of these wrecks, which look like actual photographs. The tethered ROV cameras shoot video and still photos using distance information from advanced sonars, with measurements often less than a millimeter. The software layers these images to produce incredibly realistic 3D digital models of entire shipwrecks that would normally only be barely seen from the top in the visible light spectrum.
The ships have been determined to be from the 9th century through the 19th century, spanning a thousand years of sea trade and travel. Goods traded on the Black Sea included grains, furs, horses, oils, cloth, wine and people. For Europeans, the Black Sea provided access to a branch of the Silk Road and the importation of silk, satin, musk, perfumes, spices and jewels. It is possible that Marco Polo was traveling this route when some of these ships sank around the 13th century.
Two other important elements of the MAP project are Education and Documentary. Eight students of school age were selected to join the science team on board in order to experience and even participate in many of the procedures. The documenting of this entire project is placed in the capable hands of Black Sea Films. Just as the science involved in this MAP project is cutting-edge, so is its filming, for the Black Sea Films team includes those who created the award-winning BBC series Blue Planet and Planet Earth.
The MAP findings of these ancient shipwrecks from the Byzantine and Ottoman Eras is the most significant underwater archeological discovery of this century and demonstrates how effective partnerships between academia and industry can be, especially when funded by enlightened bodies such as EEF.