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Fathoming the Mysteries of the Black Sea
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, Ive heard
that youre interested in long-distance trade and trade routes, and
that youre interested in the Black Sea. I said, Well,
youre absolutely right. But I work in the desert, and youre
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.
Hiebertwho is, shall
we say, enthusiastic by naturewas 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. "Its anaerobic at the bottomno
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 Ballards 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: Id really like to cancel
this project." A year laterthe year Hiebert began working
at Pennhe 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 Hieberts 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 coastas
well as overall project director for a land survey around the ancient
Greek and Roman port of Sinop.
"Its 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 sitesranging
from Paleolithic to Bronze Age to Greek and Roman to Byzantine and
Ottomanin 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 dont 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
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 weve 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 PIEProto-Indo-Europeanaround
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 worlds 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 riseand 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 Noahs Flood, by oceanographers
William Ryan and Walter Pitman of Columbia Universitys 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
And by doing so, they may
be able to help flesh out another important theory.
"At 5,600 B.C.thats 7,600 years
agothere 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 slowalmost 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 doesnt really make
that much sense that a hunter-gatherer whos just living a nice existence
would want to do all the work thats involved in farming. So maybe
theres another mechanism."
Ryans and Pitmans
data, based on radiocarbon-dating of sediment core samples, has convinced
many experts that their flood theory holds water, so to speak.
"Ive 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. "Were 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 theyll find,
of course, is anyones guess. But in fact, Hiebert says, one of Mindells
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 dont know why; I dont
actually ask for them. They just sort of happen."
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Gazette Last modified 6/28/99