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Fathoming the Mysteries of the Black Sea

FIVE years ago, Fredrik Hiebert was on his way to Turkmenistan to lead an archaeology project for Harvard University when he got a telephone call from deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard. Hiebert, now the Robert H. Dyson Assistant Professor and Assistant Curator of Near Eastern Archaeology at the University Museum, recalls the conversation that followed:
"I said, ‘Bob Ballard? Why are you interested in me?’ And he said, ‘I’ve heard that you’re interested in long-distance trade and trade routes, and that you’re interested in the Black Sea.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re absolutely right. But I work in the desert, and you’re known for discovering the Titanic. What do you want from me?’"
Ballard had in mind a "little project": Try to find an intact ship from the Bronze Age at the bottom of the Black Sea. For starters.
Hiebert–who is, shall we say, enthusiastic by nature–was agog. "How could I say no to him?" he asks, with an engaging falsetto laugh. "The idea of finding an intact ship that participated in the Silk Route was just incredible. So I said yes."
The Black Sea is no ordinary body of water, notes Hiebert. "It’s anaerobic at the bottom–no oxygen, no microbes, no clams, no wood bores." In other words, the perfect place for preserving a shipwreck.
Trouble is, that condition applies to the deep-water part of the Black Sea, not the relatively shallow waters along the coast. And most ancient seafarers were coast-huggers. But if a deep-water ship route through the Black Sea could be discovered, Ballard suggested, the possibility of finding an absolutely intact ship would be greatly enhanced.
Less than a year later, Hiebert discovered that between the eastern and western gyres of the Black Sea were currents that would allow sailors to sail straight south from Khersonesos (in what is now Russia) to Sinop (in what is now Turkey), and back north again. Both, he notes, were "really big ports."
He called Ballard back. "Guess what?" he said. "I think we have a deep-water sea route."
That explains why Hiebert and Ballard and Ballard’s ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles, or underwater robots) are off the coast of Turkey this month, probing the depths of the Black Sea. Actually, they had planned to start on the Russian side, but in 1995, the Russians and the Ukranians started battling over the Black Sea fleet. "It looked like it was going to be World War III in the Black Sea," recalls Hiebert. "I have this letter somewhere in my files, saying, ‘Dear Bob: I’d really like to cancel this project.’" A year later–the year Hiebert began working at Penn–he took the advice of some friends in Turkey and approached the project from the Turkish side.
The deep-sea search is only one prong of Hiebert’s Black Sea Trading Project. In addition to serving as chief archaeologist for the deep-water survey with Ballard, Hiebert is chief archaeologist for a shallow-water survey near the coast–as well as overall project director for a land survey around the ancient Greek and Roman port of Sinop.
"It’s a three-ring circus," he says cheerfully. "My job is basically to make sure that the methodology used on land and the methodology used under water and the methodology used in deep water are the same, so we get a comprehensive picture of the past."
Hiebert spent the past three summers leading the land survey, which found 177 archaeological sites–ranging from Paleolithic to Bronze Age to Greek and Roman to Byzantine and Ottoman–in the area. Even the hillside that supported the bus station near Sinop turned out to be a Bronze Age site.
"The fact that we found so many sites, and that so many of them are clustered on the coast, really amazed us," admits Hiebert. "You don’t find single, individual, spectacular finds. You put them together, and you start seeing some patterns." One such pattern is what he calls "periods of intensity" around the Black Sea, which would "correlate to times when people would be trading."
Based on their finds, they concluded that the first real period of intensity was about 3,000 B.C.–a more important date than they first realized.
"I was talking to this guy at Oxford," Hiebert recalls, "and he said, ‘One of the things that we’ve long been working on in linguistics is the origins of Indo-Europeans.’ Where do early Indo-Europeans live? Usually they settled down on the northern part of the Black Sea, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. This is supposedly the homeland of Indo-European speakers. But he came up with this hypothesis, which was published in late 1997, suggesting that perhaps about 3,000 B.C., you would have PIE–Proto-Indo-European–around the Black Sea. And when I told him that archaeologically, we had a period of intensity at about 3,000 B.C., he flipped."
Something else important happened there long before 3,000 B.C. During the last Ice Age, which receded around 8,000 B.C., the level of the world’s oceans dropped dramatically as the ice caps sucked water from them. The Black Sea, connected to the Mediterranean only by the narrow Bosphorus, was cut off when the Bosphorus dried up. For thousands of years, the Black Sea was a massive, brackish lake, fed only by fresh-water rivers. But as the ice caps receded, the Mediterranean continued to rise–and eventually the pressure became too great and the natural dam that had been the Bosphorus burst.
That was around 5,600 B.C. And according to a new book titled Noah’s Flood, by oceanographers William Ryan and Walter Pitman of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the Black Sea rose an astonishing 150 meters in a single year, drowning an area roughly the size of Florida. Though it is not inconceivable that the flood was the inspiration for the Biblical flood of Noah, that is "not a testable hypothesis," Hiebert told Science magazine. But he and his colleagues can and will "test whether there was a strong level of occupation in the [Black Sea] basin when the sea level was low."
And by doing so, they may be able to help flesh out another important theory.
"At 5,600 B.C.–that’s 7,600 years ago–there were farmers around" the Black Sea area, says Hiebert. "And [Ryan and Pitman] came up with the hypothesis that there must have been people living along the old coast of the Black Sea, and that these people must have fled."
If there were significant settlements around there, he says, the flood could have had a "big influence on the movements of farmers into Europe." Up until then, "the march of farming technology into the hunting and gathering world of Europe was very slow–almost nonexistent. And then, after that, there was this big wave of people who moved into Europe. And the typical explanation for this is that farming is just such a great technology that people just want to take it over. But it doesn’t really make that much sense that a hunter-gatherer who’s just living a nice existence would want to do all the work that’s involved in farming. So maybe there’s another mechanism."
Ryan’s and Pitman’s data, based on radiocarbon-dating of sediment core samples, has convinced many experts that their flood theory holds water, so to speak.
"I’ve talked with a number of world specialists on geology," says Hiebert, "and everybody says, ‘This is pretty good data for a very important catastrophic infilling of the Black Sea.’ The problem is, what if there was nobody there? Then it would be no big deal. So what we need to prove is that there were people living around the Black Sea then."
By using sonar, Hiebert and his collaborator from MIT, David Mindell, will look for "anomalies" that might indicate previous settlements. "We’re going to survey in 50-70 meters of water for settlements," says Hiebert. "And if we find that, these guys [Ryan and Pitman] are going to be very happy."
Just what they’ll find, of course, is anyone’s guess. But in fact, Hiebert says, one of Mindell’s sonar surveys from last summer indicates at least one possible circular ruin some 70 meters deep. And when Ballard saw the grainy sonar images of possible settlements, Mindell told Science magazine, his response was: "This is the next Titanic."
"I like astonishing things," says Hiebert. "I don’t know why; I don’t actually ask for them. They just sort of happen."
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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/28/99