The Oldest Shipwreck in the World
In 2017, scientists were scouting the floor of the Black Sea, trying to study how sea levels had changed since ancient times. But then, something unexpected suddenly appeared in the darkness: a ship. An ancient ship, as a matter of fact, half-buried on the cold, dark seafloor nearly two kilometers below the water’s surface. Upon further investigation, the team discovered that this 23-meter trading vessel actually seemed to date all the way back to Ancient Greece, to the days of philosophers like Plato.
That meant that they had accidentally found the world’s oldest known intact shipwreck. The scientists were able to crack this ship’s secret thanks to a combination of biology, engineering, and ocean sciences; all of which are involved in a field called maritime or marine archeology. And by looking at how they did it, there’s a lot we can learn about how we study shipwrecks in general. This might not come as a surprise, but not all shipwrecks are as beautifully-preserved as this one. Even wrecks half as old are prone to serious damage and decay.
The problem is often the critters that live in the ocean. Many types of organism like to burrow into or eat waterlogged wood, including mollusks like shipworms and piddocks, and tiny crustaceans called gribbles. Not to mention plenty of microbes. Shipwrecks can also turn into impromptu reefs as corals and other types of sea life grow on top of them. And while that’s very cute in an, “Aw, look they found a home!” sort of way, it’s not great for the ships themselves. This kind of life either hides wrecks, or breaks them down into a pile of mush. This ancient ship managed to avoid that fate, though, but not because there was anything special about Greek shipbuilding back then. This boat just happened to sink in a very convenient location. 2 kilometers beneath the Black Sea, in the cold, lightless depths, there’s very little oxygen.
It’s what’s known as an anoxic environment. In this case, it happens because the Black Sea is really two separate layers of water: a less salty one that generally comes from rain, rivers, or streams, and a more salty one that comes in through a deep channel from the Mediterranean. That extra-salty layer is more dense than the fresher stuff, so it stays near the bottom of the sea and generally doesn’t mix with the water above it. And since oxygen gets absorbed from the atmosphere down, no mixing means no oxygen. This makes it extremely hard for life to survive down there, and that means ships rot much, much more slowly. The Black Sea is actually home to all kinds of wrecks, and the team that found this 2017 one discovered about five dozen others on their expedition. This one just happened to be the oldest.