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‘We couldn’t believe our eyes’: a lost world of shipwrecks is found

The medieval ship lay more than a half-mile down at the bottom of the Black Sea, its masts, timbers, and planking undisturbed in the darkness for seven or eight centuries. Lack of oxygen in the icy depths had ruled out the usual riot of creatures that eat sunken wood.

This fall, a team of explorers lowered a robot on a long tether, lit up the wreck with bright lights, and took thousands of high-resolution photos. A computer then merged the images into a detailed portrait.

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Archeologists date the discovery to the 13th or 14th century, opening a new window on forerunners of the 15th- and 16th-century sailing vessels that discovered the New World, including those of Columbus. This medieval ship probably served the Venetian empire, which had Black Sea outposts.

Never before had this type of ship been found in such complete form. The breakthrough was the quarterdeck, from which the captain would have directed a crew of 20 sailors.

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“That’s never been seen archeologically,” said Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz, an expedition member at the Center for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton, in Britain.

Remarkably, the find is but one of more than 40 shipwrecks the international team recently discovered and photographed off the Bulgarian coast in one of archeology’s greatest coups.

The vessels span from the ninth to the 19th centuries, from the Byzantine to the Ottoman empires. Generally, the ships are in such good repair that the images reveal intact coils of rope, rudders, and elaborately carved decorations.

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“They’re astonishingly preserved,” said Jon Adams, leader of the Black Sea project and founding director of the maritime archeology center at the University of Southampton.

Kroum Batchvarov, a team member at the University of Connecticut who grew up in Bulgaria and has conducted other studies in its waters, said the recent discoveries “far surpassed my wildest expectations.”

Independent experts said the annals of deepwater archeology hold few, if any, comparable sweeps of discovery in which shipwrecks have proved to be so plentiful, diverse and well preserved.

“It’s a great story,” said Shelley Wachsmann of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University. “We can expect some real contributions to our understanding of ancient trade routes.”

Goods traded on the Black Sea include grains, furs, horses, oils, cloth, wine and people. The Tatars turned Christians into slaves who were shipped to places like Cairo. For Europeans, the sea provided access to a northern branch of the Silk Road and imports of silk, satin, musk, perfumes, spices and jewels.

Marco Polo reportedly visited the Black Sea, and Italian merchant colonies dotted its shores. The profits were so enormous that, in the 13th and 14th centuries, Venice and Genoa fought a series of wars for control of the trade routes, including those of the Black Sea.

Brendan P. Foley, an archeologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, said the good condition of the shipwrecks implied that many objects inside their hulls might also be intact.

“You might find books, parchment, written documents,” he said. “Who knows how much of this stuff was being transported? But now we have the possibility of finding out. It’s amazing.”

Experts said the success in Bulgarian waters might inspire other nations that control portions of the Black Sea to join the archeological hunt. They are Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Foley, who has explored a number of Black Sea wrecks, said the sea’s overall expanse undoubtedly held tens of thousands of lost ships. “Everything that sinks out there is going to be preserved,” he added. “They’re not going away.”

For ages, the Black Sea was a busy waterway that served the Balkans, the Eurasian steppes, the Caucasus, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Greece. It long beckoned to archeologists because they knew its deep waters lacked oxygen, a rarity for large bodies of water.

The great rivers of Eastern Europe — the Don, the Danube, the Dnieper — pour so much fresh water into the sea that a permanent layer forms over denser, salty water from the Mediterranean. As a result, oxygen from the atmosphere that mixes readily with fresh water never penetrate the inky depths.

Although the team’s official name is the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project, or Black Sea MAP, it also hauls up sediments to hunt for clues to how the sea’s rising waters engulfed former land surfaces and human settlements.

In an interview, Batchvarov of the University of Connecticut said most of the discoveries date to the Ottoman era. So it was that, late one night, during his shift, he assumed that a new wreck coming into view would be more of the same.

“Then I saw a quarter rudder,” he recalled, referring to a kind of large steering oar on a ship’s side. It implied the wreck was much older. Then another appeared. Quickly, he had the expedition’s leader, Adams, awakened.

“He came immediately,” Batchvarov recalled. “We looked at each other like two little boys in a candy shop.”

Batchvarov said the wreck — the medieval one found more than a half-mile down — was part of a class known by several names, including cocha and “round ship.” The latter name arose from how its ample girth let it carry more cargo and passengers than a warship.

The team has said little publicly on whether it plans to excavate the ships — a topic on which nations, academics, and treasure hunters have long clashed. Bulgaria is a signatory to the 2001 UN convention that outlaws commercial trade in underwater cultural heritage and sets out guidelines on artifact recovery and public display.

Pacheco-Ruiz said the team had discovered and photographed 44 shipwrecks, and that more beckoned.

Which was the most important? Adams said that for him, a student of early European shipbuilding, the centerpiece was the medieval round ship. He said it evoked Marco Polo and city states like Venice. The ship, he added, incorporated a number of innovations that let it do more than its predecessors had and paved the way for bigger things to come.

“It’s not too much,” he said, “to say that medieval Europe became modern with the help of ships like these.”

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