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Archaeology Part of Humanities

Black Sea expedition discovers world's oldest intact shipwreck

Published: 23 October 2018 Origin:  University of Southampton
Image of world's oldest shipwreck
The world's oldest known shipwreck. Credit: Black Sea MAP/EEF Expeditions

An international team of scientists led by University of Southampton experts has confirmed that one of the 65 shipwrecks discovered in an astonishing state of preservation in the Black Sea has been dated back to 400BC - making it the world's oldest intact shipwreck.

The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (Black Sea MAP) used advanced mapping technology to survey more than 2,000 sq km of seabed, discovering 65 shipwrecks, from a 17th century Cossack raiding fleet to Roman trading vessels complete with amphorae.

It was during the most recent phase of the project, in late 2017, that the team discovered what has been confirmed as the world’s oldest intact shipwreck – a Greek trading vessel of a kind previously only seen on the side of ancient Greek pottery such as the 'Siren Vase' in the British Museum.

The wreck lies more than 2km deep in the Black Sea, where the anoxic (oxygen-free) conditions mean organic material can be preserved for thousands of years. A small piece of the vessel was carbon dated, confirming the ship to be at least 2,400 years old.

Jon Adams, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Southampton, is Black Sea MAP’s principal investigator. He said: “A ship, surviving intact, from the Classical world, lying in over 2km of water, is something I would never have believed possible. This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world."

The University worked with the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, and the Centre of Underwater Archaeology, both in Bulgaria, on the project.

In 2015 they set out to investigate the changes in the ancient environment of the region off the coast of Bulgaria, including the impact of sea-level change following the last glacial cycle.

Field studies were conducted over three seasons, concluding in September 2017. The team of world-renowned maritime scientists returned from their final trip with knowledge of some astonishing finds and a collection of amphorae and other artefacts.

In addition to the discovery of the shipwrecks, the scientists excavated the remains of an early Bronze Age settlement at Ropotamo, Bulgaria, near what was the ancient shoreline when the sea level was much lower than today. As the waters rose, the settlement was abandoned and now the remains of house timbers, hearths and ceramics lie 2.5 metres below the seabed.

The valley in which the village was located became a sheltered bay visited by Greek colonists of the Archaic period, then a harbour for early Byzantine seafarers, and finally an anchorage used by the Ottomans.

The Black Sea MAP project was conceived by Hans K Rausing who established the Expedition and Education Foundation to commission the project. The Foundation’s work is funded by The Julia and Hans Rausing Trust, a charitable fund.

Watch our video about the Black Sea discoveries

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