The ocean and wood are not friends. Wooden vessels lost at sea don’t tend to survive for very long. In warmer waters, shipworms will make a tasty meal out of the wood, while any iron will corrode and rust away in short order. When we recover wooden vessels, it tends to be because they were either buried in conditions that protected much of the hull or sank in cold, anoxic waters that support minimal to no life. While these hull-preserving environments are comparatively rare, they can preserve a ship for orders of magnitude than it would otherwise have survived. In this case, it did so.
The BBC reports on an amazing find in the Black Sea — a 2,400-year-old Greek trading vessel, found intact, at the bottom of the sea floor. The Black Sea is a largely anoxic environment because the upper and lower water layers do not mix. The majority of the life in the Black Sea lives at shallow depths and, when it dies, sinks to the bottom. The bacteria that break down biological material at depth consume the available oxygen, while overall water mixing between layers is limited by the shallowness of the straits that connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
Imagine having two deep pools of water that are only linked by a shallow channel that allows just the topmost water in each pool to actually intermix, and you’ve got a (simplified) idea of the how the Black Sea and the Mediterranean swap fluid. When the water level in the Black Sea is too low, the connection with the Mediterranean can break altogether. It was even once theorized that the reconnection of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean might have led to catastrophic flooding that gave rise to some of the Flood Myths of the people that lived in this area, though that theory is contested.
Regardless, it’s the unique anoxic conditions within the Black Sea that gave us this astonishing find:
The vessel has been dated to 400 BC and looks remarkably similar to a ship painted on the so-called Siren Vase, which depicts Odysseus bound to the mast as his men sail past the deadly Sirens. This might seem to raise questions of how it could be true, given that the Odyssey and Illiad were distant history to the Greeks of 400 BC.
Credit: Werner Forman/Getty Images
This is less of an issue that it might seem. While the events chronicled in the Iliad and the Odyssey were supposed to have taken place long before this vessel sailed, it was not uncommon for stories to depict modern armor, weapons, or styles of dress when telling mythological stories. In the days before photography or book-binding, creating detailed representations of the way things used to look was much more difficult. At the same time, one way that historians investigate the historicity of events like the Iliad is by searching the text for anachronistic elements that point to an older origin for the characters and areas they depict. The historicity of the Iliad is a fascinating topic in its own right. And the designs of Greek vessels as painted on their amphorae have been traced through epochs and periods of shipbuilding, back through the Minoan civilization and as far back as the mythical Argo.
The vessel is reportedly in a safe location and is not deteriorating. The team that discovered it has not yet managed to investigate the cargo bay but hopes to return and do so.
Top image credit: Black Sea Map/EEF Expeditions.
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