For another week the world’s eyes will remain on the Sochi Winter Olympics where fearless winter athletes from around the world are jumping off mountains on skis, hurtling down tunnels of ice on tiny sleds, or throwing glittering lady ice skaters high in the air. With our eyes so resolutely fixed on the tall white mountains around Sochi, it is easy to ignore the region’s dominant feature, the huge meromictic body of water which surrounds Sochi—the Black Sea. The word “meromictic” describes a body of water in which the layers do not mix. This means the depths of the Black Sea are oxygen free. The sea’s anaerobic depths are largely free of light or life: the majority of the Black Sea is truly a black sea, dark and dead.
Yet the sea has an incredibly rich cultural tradition: for thousands of years it has been ringed by Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Slavic, Turkish, Georgian, and Russian cities. Merchant convoys and navies sailed upon the Black Sea through all of this time. Whenever some Byzantine courtier screwed up beyond belief, he was sent in to exile at Cherson—the hellish end of the world for the Greeks (which would ironically become the most popular tourist destination for good Soviets). Turks purchased goods from Russia across the water. The Silk Road ended at the Black Sea ports to the East. Through all of these different eras, ships were lost to storms, battles, and the perils of sailing. Hundreds (or thousands) of ships from different eras have sunk into the depths of the Black Sea and then vanished from human memory. In other marine environments, these wooden ships would rot or be eaten by various boring creatures, but the Black Sea is lifeless below a certain depth. The wrecks of countless ships from millennia are waiting at the bottom in shockingly good condition.
Early in the 2000s, the great marine adventurer and explorer, Robert Ballard came to the Black Sea in order to see if it was indeed the rich historical treasure trove which oceanographers and archeologists speculate. His team quickly discovered the wreck of a sixth-century Byzantine merchant ship found in the Black Sea’s anoxic waters at a depth of 325 meters. Known as Sinop D, the ship was in shockingly pristine condition. The timbers it was made of had not deteriorated–indeed, carved details could still be easily made out. Dr. Ballard vowed to bring the wreck to the surface and restore the ancient ship, but so far, the ancient craft remains where it sank so long ago. Just imagine all of the other amazing, pristine ship wrecks that are also out there! How does one get into Black Sea Archaeology?