The ancient Greeks once sailed the seas aboard ships like the ones depicted on ancient murals and vases from the time of Plato. In modern times, though, we have never actually laid eyes on one—that is, until now.
In the depths of the Black Sea, more than 80 kilometers off the coast of Burgas, Bulgaria, an ancient Greek merchant ship, resembling paintings of the vessel used by Homer’s Odysseus, was recently discovered by an Anglo-Bulgarian research team.
From carbon dating, the ship is thought to be over 2,400 years old, making it the world’s oldest ship ever found that is still intact. The vessel measures 23 meters long (75 feet), and its rudder, rowing benches, as well as the contents of its cargo hold remain preserved despite being two dozen centuries old.
The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP) team located the ship at a depth of 2,000 meters below the surface (well beyond the reach of modern divers) using two underwater robotic explorers to digitally map the wreck in 3D. They also took samples for carbon dating.
“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,” MAP researcher Dr. Helen Farr told BBC.
“It’s like another world.”
It is believed that the vessel, which was found lying on its side, was preserved due to the super-salty and anoxic (oxygen-deprived) conditions of the Black Sea. The depth at which it was located also made it impossible for treasure hunters to disturb it.
“It’s preserved, it’s safe,” Farr said. “It’s not deteriorating and it’s unlikely to attract hunters.”
The ship’s design resembles the one depicted in the ancient “Siren Vase,” dating back to 480 BC, where Odysseus is tied to the mast of his own ship sailing past the sirens (whose song leads sailors to crash into the rocks and meet their demise), which is currently in the British Museum.
The ship’s cargo contents is currently unknown, yet the MAP team hopes to return for further exploration, though more funding is still needed.
“Normally we find amphorae (wine vases) and can guess where it’s come from, but with this it’s still in the hold,” Dr. Farr said. “As archaeologists we’re interested in what it can tell us about technology, trade and movements in the area.”
For the past three years, the MAP team has charted over 2,000 square kilometers, (772 square miles) of the sea floor in the Black Sea, and has discovered 67 wrecks, including Roman trading ships and a 17th-century Cossack trading fleet.