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The University of Southampton
ArchaeologyPart of Humanities

The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project

The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (2015-2019), led by the University of Southampton’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology (CMA), was a major international collaborative survey of the Bulgarian waters of the Black Sea.

Its unique discoveries, including ancient shipwrecks, were widely communicated throughout the Project, capturing the fascination of millions globally through the front pages of major international newspapers, an interactive roadshow, US and UK documentaries produced by a dedicated film crew, and ongoing exhibitions.

The Project championed international best practice as defined by UNESCO and shaped policy on cultural heritage management in the Black Sea region and beyond. It delivered a highly successful UK scholar programme providing opportunity to A-level students from challenging school environments.

Context

Operational since 1995, the Centre for Maritime Archaeology (CMA) is the hub for global research on early seafaring, maritime infrastructure, maritime landscapes and palaeo-landscapes.

Shipwreck in the Black Sea waters

The extensive, large-scale datasets provided by CMA projects have facilitated innovative methodological and analytical procedures that carry over directly into frontline CMA Research. These were instrumental in the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP) the largest and most ambitious project of its kind ever undertaken.

Research challenge

The Black Sea MAP ran from 2015 to 2019 and was funded £15 million fom the Julia and Hans Rausing Trust. Led by the CMA’s Professor Jon Adams, it brought together partners from Bulgaria, Sweden, USA and Greece. 

The project’s primary focus was to establish the chronology and processes of environmental change in the Black Sea region since the last glacial maximum in order to understand their impacts on human populations. 

The results have enabled the construction of a new robust chronology for events relating to the exposure and subsequent inundation of the palaeo-landscape on the Bulgarian shelf, supported by underwater excavation of inundated prehistoric coastal settlement sites.

During the project, 65 ancient and historical shipwrecks were discovered, preserved in the Black Sea’s anoxic waters. They include the best-preserved wrecks of Ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods, offering unparalleled insight into early vessel technology, seafaring and maritime affairs.

The project not only enabled modelling of the changing landscape and seascape of the Black Sea, but also significantly increased our understanding of how people engaged directly with it through seafaring over the millennia. 

Public recognition and engagement of the project’s findings

Shipwreck in the Black Sea

Unique findings from the Black Sea MAP were communicated to the public throughout the project. The shipwrecks in particular captured media and public attention: the discoveries of a well-preserved ship from the time of Marco Polo, an intact Roman ship from the 1st Century AD, and a 2,400-year-old Greek vessel – the oldest intact shipwreck yet found – reached the pages of news outlets across the world, from the UK to China to New Zealand.

The project was voted the world’s most significant archaeological discovery of 2018 by the readership of a consortium of national archaeological magazines. The associated prize is named for Khaled al-Asaad and commemorates his life’s work protecting cultural heritage as the Director of Palmyra before he was murdered by Isis in 2015.

A roadshow of the project’s findings engaged thousands of participants across seven UK venues with virtual reality tours of key shipwrecks, 3D printing of shipwrecks and a hands-on geological core-sampling exhibit. The roadshow materials were then donated to the Muzeiko children’s science museum in Sofia, Bulgaria.

A dedicated documentary team filmed the project and produced two one-hour documentaries premiering at the British Museum and subsequently airing in the USA on the Discovery Channel and in the UK. 

Scholar programme for A-Level Students

An embedded scholar programme ran from 2015 to 2017 in order to enable 32 students from challenging school environments to engage with the Black Sea MAP. Most of the students had not originally planned to go to university or had doubted they would get in if they applied; 22 are now in Higher Education.

To broaden the programme to a wider audience, an educational portal was developed by Dr Helen Farr and Dr Michael Grant and promoted to 5,500 secondary schools and 22,360 primary schools across England and Wales.

From her involvement with this educational project, Farr was named as a STEM Champion by The Curiosity Box, an award-winning UK company specialising in STEM-related educational toys. She produced an underwater science-themed box, ‘Under Pressure,’ for home subscription and for schools with the aim of reaching a million children. During the COVID-19 pandemic, boxes were sent to home-schooled children receiving free school meals. 

Black Sea Maritime Heritage: Awareness and Policy

In 2016, the Bulgarian National Archaeological Institute with Museum judged Black Sea MAP the most significant archaeological project that year.

Following the project and its recognition, Bulgarian authorities now exercise more direct monitoring of companies holding hydrocarbon prospection licences, such as Total and Royal Dutch Shell. Such companies are encouraged to liaise with Bulgaria’s Centre for Underwater Archaeology, which the Black Sea MAP assisted in developing.

The Black Sea MAP exceeded the standards of the UNESCO 2001 Convention, with the Director of UNESCO stating that it “demonstrated to heritage-related Ministries and Agencies that large-scale deep-water archaeology is not the preserve of commercial salvors and treasure hunters but should be the sphere of appropriate scientific research.”

Related projects

The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology project 

Key Publications

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