Black Sea ideal for wrecks

Resting since 14 April on the bottom of the Black Sea, at 45°10'43.39″N and 30°55'30.54″E, the missile cruiser Moskva may in the future prove to be a serious asset not only for Ukraine defending itself against Moscow's invasion, but also for undersea archaeology.

Many sciences, from geology to the physics of liquids, originated from the practical need to master or know a particular element. The humanities, however, tend to luxuriate in abstraction. Yet underwater archaeology - now a recognised academic discipline, with chairs, quarterly journals and disputes over conference points - was initially separated from the treasure hunting profession by three shovel strokes...

The din, the tension, the swaying decks of two ships standing parallel, the tightening of the ropes. Do they slam, don't they slam? Vibrating ropes are moistened with water or grease, observers from a dinghy circling on the sea surface look out for something in the depths. The cranes creak, the cries of seagulls are heard. Suddenly, with a loud splash, something black and slimy emerges from the water, streams of dirty water pour down, the smell of silt and hydrogen sulphide reaches everyone. Something flashes in the depths of the shapeless hull: water, silver or broken mirrors?
This, according to newsreels, was the scene of the final recovery of Gustavus Adolphus' famous galleon, Vasa, which took place 61 years ago, on 24 April 1961. But a similar technique was used to extract dozens of ships restored to the world in the 20th century. A similar procedure - running ropes underneath the stranded galleon and lifting it piece by piece - was also designed immediately after the Vasa sank in Stockholm harbour in the summer of 1628.

In the 20th century many fanciful techniques were invented to bring sunken ships to the surface (some suggested filling the hull of the Vasa with millions of ping-pong balls to bring the galleon to the surface, others - freezing a piece of the sea and cutting the relic in a block of ice), but pulling on ropes turned out to be the safest for the crumpled, water-soaked, not infrequently - clam-ridden wood.

In our time dozens of excavated ships have found their way into museums, from the Kyrenia, the pride of Cyprus, sacked by pirates in the 4th century BC, to the CSS Neuse, a Confederate mini battleship which protected Kinston from Union attacks until March 1865.

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It was then that the new research discipline began to gain a foothold in the academic world. Michael Katzev, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, attracted by the Cypriot Andreas Cariolou to work on the excavation of the Kyrenia, years later became the founder of the international organisation Institute of Nautical Archaeology, coordinating scientific work off dozens of coasts and collecting research results. But the excavation of sunken ships has always been carried out.

Heavier than water, so it sinks

Because, there is no escaping the cliché, they have always sunk - usually with a cargo of expensive stones, silver, well-sealed amphorae with wine, fragrances, and even, if they were warships - armour, arrows and javelins, and in modern times cannons and bullets, almost priceless. Hence, whenever a shipwreck occurred not on the high seas, but in a harbour or off the coast, divers were rushed in as quickly as possible and used to rescue the goods.

This was done on a "first come, first served" basis. The English, a nation particularly experienced in transporting goods by water, even developed specific terminology to distinguish between types of surface and underwater goods: "flotsam and jetsam", by heavy rock veterans associated as the name of a trash-metal band from the 1980s and 1990s, actually means two types of ship cargo: "flotsam" are goods that have gone overboard against the crew's will; "jetsam" are goods thrown overboard with the crew's consent, primarily to rescue an overloaded ship.

Under British law, flotsam belongs to the shipowner and jetsam is the right of whoever finds it first, and there have been many court battles to ascertain the intentions of the crew. But in the case of cargo that went down hundreds of years ago and whose title cannot usually be established - hullo! The greatest concern of archaeologists, once they discovered the location of a sunken ship, was to hide it until an expedition could be organised.

The oldest traces of sunken ships are - well, just traces: the ships sunk off the coast of the island of Dokos (ancient Aperopia) were left behind by imprints in the sea mud and a cargo of a hundred fairly well-preserved earthenware vessels. But it's also not surprising - the ship, whose name is not known, sank around 2,700 BC, i.e. almost five thousand years ago.

Slightly younger (and incomparably better preserved!) is the ship of the pharaoh Khufu (more precisely, it was the ship of the god Ra - Khufu was only a commissioner), but in this case it is impossible to speak of underwater archaeology - the ship was buried at the foot of the pyramid of Khufu in Giza.

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But then - the list multiplies like colonies of shipworms (Teredo navalis), growing on sunken hulls. We know the location of dozens of ships of antiquity (partly only excavated), mostly named after the place where they rested on the bottom: Kyrenia, Mahdia, the ship of Marsala... A second number of wrecks attest to sailing in medieval times - if not a Byzantine transport ship carrying a cargo of marble columns, found in 1997 at the bottom of the Marmara Sea, then an Arabian dhow boat of the 9th century, sailing between China and Arabia, found a year later off the coast of Sumatra.

Crowding on bottom maps

And ever since the daredevils set out to conquer the New World, there has been almost no space left on the maps of the more frequented routes for further entries. On the Wikipedia list, which is far from precise, only in 1502 (just ten years after the discovery of America!) are mourned the Spanish ships El Dorado and Santa Maria del Antiqua, the Muslim Miri sunk by Vasco da Gama, and again two caravels, Santa María de Gracia and San Antón...

Caribbean, Great Lakes and Baltic; victims of storms, shipworms and fire, landing and artillery. For some, "eternal tombs", for others, safes deposited at the bottom of the sea. The same currents carry sand on the remains of the Vasa and the Wilhelm Gustloff, the same deep-sea fish search beneath the decks of the Titanic and U-680, one of the many U-boats sunk by the Royal Navy after the war, as part of the systematic disarmament of the Germans.

The former was a challenge that we are not fully aware of today. And it is not just a matter of understanding that from antiquity it is not only gemstones, diadems, rings and pendants that are interesting, possibly statues and inscriptions, but also broken crockery, slave chains and waste pits. Equally important was the emergence of the concepts of 'past', 'monument', 'reconstruction' and 'research'.
March 1970. the recovery of the Dutch merchant ship 'Amsterdam' which sank off the East Sussex coast, near Hastings in 1749. R. Powell/Daily Express/Getty Images
Not only the renaissance curiosity seekers, carelessly roaming Rome of the Renaissance times, drilling through the layers of mosaics to find a pair of golden earrings in good condition, but even the precursors of the archaeological research of the Enlightenment era did not have it: Emanuele d'Elbeuf in Herculaneum, Roque de Alcubierre in Pompeii... Reading about their achievements - they dug wherever they liked in a barrow, without any plan, without any concept of securing the remains, just to find something interesting, like children looking for shells - one feels like calling them not "fathers" but duffers of archaeology.

If you don't net it, dynamite it

The same conceptual problem was faced by researchers interested in the remains of ancient civilisations hidden under water: it took a long time to understand that it was not only precious metals that mattered, that an anchor, an inch of rotten rigging, a steering wheel or a bell were equally valuable (and sometimes more valuable) traces of the past.

Back in the mid-19th century, a man called John Deane was still hacking away at the Mary Rose - one of Britain's most famous ships, a 16th-century carrack sunk off the Isle of Wight - with charges of dynamite, which he used to rip through layers of silt and shellfish (and, incidentally, the hull plating) in the hope of reaching some brass cannons.

But even once it was understood how much a piece of keel or an oar could mean, once the hulls of 19th century battleships ceased to be valued as steel scrap, the question of technology remained. In the case of terrestrial archaeology, for all the risks of landslides or tectonically unstable rocks, the matter is quite simple: shovel, pickaxe, rope, some formwork, and then - brush, brush...

Of course, I am joking a little bit, archaeologists today scan the pyramids, prick the ground with ultrasounds, measure the magnetic field changes and, in general, closely cooperate with physicists, and if they also deal with dendrochronometry - you can't go without a sensor. The point is, however, that a lot can also be determined with relatively simple tools.

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Not in the case of underwater archaeology. Working in the usually absolute darkness, in icy or at best chilly waters, in layers of silt (leaving aside the question of multi-legged or nimbly wriggling creatures) is basically impossible without wetsuits and floating submersibles. And even then - what is found in a diver's glove or in the tongs of a bathyscaphe can often fall apart after a while.

The aforementioned shipworms and dozens of micro-organisms can turn wood (not infrequently strained before by fire or shelling) in a few decades. Electrolysis will deal with metal almost as quickly. Underwater currents cover everything with sand, moving from place to place - not only ships, but all other objects of interest to underwater archaeology (for example - buildings, roads and elements of harbours, which found themselves underwater due to tectonic changes).

Such an invention as the diving bell has helped explorers (and above all, builders of fortifications and bridges) since the 17th century, although it may have been known even earlier. The first clumsy diving suits began to be sewn and welded at the turn of the 18th century, although it wasn't until a century later that they were actually used. The middle of the 20th century saw small, manoeuvrable, one- or two-person vessels. And when airmen and satellites (only aerial photographs show the shape of the bottom), fishfinders and sealed incandescent lamps were used to light up the eternal darkness....

A saltwater bath can help

It was then that it became apparent how little remains after several decades of work by the water elements. What a stroke of luck if the layers of silt are thick enough to cover the wreck tightly before bacteria and eels can reach it. And if it is not silt, the drying up of a body of water or extremely high salinity, as in the Dead Sea - the "window of opportunity" opens in a completely unexpected place.

Simply speaking, the opportunity for undersea archaeology is what for the world of living creatures is death - and for biologists, experienced after all in commenting on the various misguided ideas of mankind, a source of growing anxiety.

We are talking about the phenomenon of so-called water deserts: zones where, due to an almost complete lack of oxygen, life does not develop or exists only in the most rudimentary and survival forms. Many factors may be responsible for such degradation of the marine biosphere: the most common is contamination with artificial fertilisers, flowing with surface waters into the sea, which causes immoderate growth, and then death and decay of underwater vegetation. This is the case, for example, in the Baltic, where a large part of the water is poisoned by hydrogen sulphide from the decomposition of seaweed.

Sometimes, however, such oxygen-deprived zones are created without human intervention: the cause can also be the distribution of salinity or the course
Moskva in its heyday. Photo by Par Isaac Newton -http://www.hmsminerva.info/photos1.htm, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=311583
Pontus Euxinus, the "hospitable sea" of the Ancients is not accidentally "Black" - not only in the eyes of Poles, Ukrainians and Russians, but also Turks ("Karadeniz") and Romanians ("Marea Neagră"). This blackness is the blackness of sulphides, formed in anaerobic conditions. The sandy and rocky shores are pleasant for tourists, but if you look into the abyss, you will see nothing but blackness.

Canvas from the time of Justinian

And this is what has made the Black Sea - in addition to having been traversed since time immemorial by Hellenes, Romans, Pontians and Byzantines, Ottomans and Cossacks, British and Russians - a reserve of ships and vessels on a global scale. Conducted since 2016 by specialists from the University of Southampton, the Black Sea MAP project has uncovered more than 60 wrecks preserved in what antiquarian owners describe as 'exhibition' condition. Byzantine and Turkish sailing ships, steamers from the 19th century, not only are none of the hull parts missing, not only are the masts preserved: in the strong light of the cameras it is possible to see the hand-carved ornaments on the sides, recreate the weaves of the rigging, the weaving of the sailing canvas...

One thing has not changed since the 19th and 20th centuries: the location of most of the wrecks is still kept secret. It will take years before Bulgarian, Romanian and British researchers manage to inventory the thousands of objects, and these ships must not be allowed to become the object of robbery.

However, the anaerobic "blanket" does not protect against one change: mechanical rotting. The wood of ships a thousand years old looks intact, retaining chisel marks, but pressed harder - it would bend like a sponge and then fall to pieces. Scientists therefore examine the ships mostly remotely, with the help of cameras and micro submarines; they need training in moving around in sunken vessels, but they can't practise in the fragile as wet cardboard cockpits.

That’s why we can say that resting since 14 April on the bottom of the Black Sea, at 45°10'43.39″N and 30°55'30.54″E, the missile cruiser Moskva may in the future prove to be a serious asset not only for Ukraine defending itself against Moscow's invasion, but also for undersea archaeology.

The almost 200-metre long ship, the largest sunk in warfare since the Falklands War (1982), had, as it turned out, not the best missile defence. Certainly, however, its superstructures were made of steel strong enough to serve for years as a training ground for the Black Sea archaeologists, before they take up wrecks more valuable for the history of our civilisation.

– Wojciech Stanisławski
– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: Painting by William Bradford 'The Wreck of Nantucket after a Storm' painted circa 1860. Photo Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
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