Tag Archives: shipwreck

Archaeologists find oldest intact shipwreck — 2,400 years, in the Black Sea

This old sunken merchant ship lies just off the coast of Bulgaria and is still in remarkable shape.

Image credits: Black Sea Map.

Around the year 400BC, some traders in Greek had a horrible day. For reasons that remain unknown, their ship sank. Well, archaeologists only suspect that it was a Greek merchant ship, but it’s clear that it did sank — and was amazingly well-preserved, one mile beneath the surface, its mast, rudders, and rowing benches still intact and in place.

“A ship surviving intact from the classical world, lying in over 2km of water, is something I would never have believed possible,” said Professor Jon Adams, the principal investigator with the Black Sea Maritime ArchaeologyProject (MAP), the team that made the find. “This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.”

The 23-meter (75 feet) boat was discovered by a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) operated by the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP), which has discovered more than 60 historic shipwrecks during a three-year survey of the Black Sea, according to The Guardian.

The findings varied from a “17th-century Cossack raiding fleet, through Roman trading vessels, complete with amphorae, to a complete ship from the classical period” — the latter of which is presented here.

Aside from its excellently-kept wooden structure, the ROV also discovered typical Greek pottery, and retrieved a piece of the wreck and brought it to the surface for dating (it was dated to 2,400 years ago). The results will be presented at the Black Sea MAP conference at the Wellcome Collection in London later this week.

The pottery vase depicts a legendary scene: the hero Odysseus strapped to the mast of his ship, as he sailed past three mythical mermaids whose irresistible tune was thought to drive sailors to their deaths. Odysseus wanted to hear the tune, while still being immune to their trickery.

While older ships have been found on land, it’s highly uncommon for submerged ships to escape decay. However, it’s no coincidence that the ship was so well-preserved — in fact, it’s got everything to do with the unusual physical and chemical environment of the Black Sea.

The Black Sea is what’s called a meromictic basin — it has layers that don’t intermix. Simply put, the deep waters do not mix with the upper layers of water that receive oxygen from the atmosphere. As a result, over 90% of the deeper Black Sea volume is anoxic — it almost completely lacks oxygen. It’s this anoxic layer that helped preserve the ship — and many others. These unique conditions have helped many ships sunken in the Black Sea remain in excellent shape. However, MAP says they need additional funding in order to return to the area.

They are interested not only in finding sunken ships but also in using the information to study technology and trade in the area, as well as sea movement and circulation.

The Wreck.

Novel nanocomposite material might prevent shipwrecks from rotting

Shipwrecks are coming — soon, to a museum near you. And it’s all thanks to nanotechnology.

The Wreck.

“The Wreck”, Knud-Andreassen Baade.
Image via Wikimedia.

A novel approach hopes to turn the damp, pitted wood of ancient shipwrecks into a showstopper. The team is currently using ‘smart’ nanocomposites to conserve the 16th-century British warship, the Mary Rose, and its artifacts. Should the process prove effective, museums will be able to display salvaged wrecks in all their glory without them rotting away.

The old that is strong does not wither

Thousands of shipwrecks have come to rest on ocean floors through the centuries. These drowned leviathans spark the passion of both researchers — who can learn a lot about past battles and ways of life from the wrecks — and public alike.

However, it’s very risky to go in and try to recover shipwrecks. Metal ships tend to weather the years underwater with some grace, but the wooden ones quickly rot away — after roughly a century, the only parts that remain are those that were buried in silt or sand soon after the sinking. Even worse, these timber skeletons quickly deteriorate once brought up to the surface.

While underwater, sulfur-reducing bacteria from the sea floor move into the wood and secrete hydrogen sulfide. This reacts with iron ions (rust) from items like nails or cannonballs, forming iron sulfide. This compound remains stable in environments that sport low levels of oxygen but binds with the gas to form acids that attack the wood.

In a paper being presented today at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), one team of researchers detail their efforts to keep wooden shipwrecks intact after recovery.

“This project began over a glass of wine with Eleanor Schofield, Ph.D., who is head of conservation at the Mary Rose Trust,” recalls Serena Corr, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator.

“She was working on techniques to preserve the wood hull [of the Mary Rose] and assorted artifacts and needed a way to direct the treatment into the wood. We had been working with functional magnetic nanomaterials for applications in imaging, and we thought we might be able to apply this technology to the Mary Rose.”

Mary Rose.

Mary Rose in its specially-designed building at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, United Kingdom.
Image via Wikimedia.

The Mary Rose was one of the first sailing ships built for war. Work on the wooden carrack (three-masted ship) began in 1510, and she was set to sea in July 1511. She remained one of the largest ships in the English navy for over three decades, during which she fought against the French, Scottish, and Brythonic navies — a task at which the Mary Rose excelled. The ship bristled with heavy cannons that popped out from gun-ports (which were cutting-edge technology at the time), and one of the first ships in the world capable of firing a full broadside.

Still, for reasons not yet clear, the ship sank in 1545 off the south coast of England. It was re-discovered in 1971 and recovered in 1982 by the Mary Rose Trust, along with over 19,000 artifacts and pieces of timber. The wreck helped provide a unique snapshot of seafaring and daily life in the Tudor period. It was displayed in a museum in Portsmouth, England, alongside the recovered artifacts.

Only 40% of the initial wooden structure survived the centuries underwater, and even this was rapidly degrading on the surface. So the Trust set out to preserve their invaluable wreck.

Corr’s goal was to avoid acid production by removing free iron ions from the wreck. She and her team at the University of Glasgow started by spraying the wood with cold water to keep it from drying out, which prevented further microbial activity, they explain. Afterward, they applied different types of polyethylene glycol (PEG) — a common polymer —  to the wreck. The PEG replaced water in the wood’s cells, forming a more robust outer layer.

The team, alongside researchers from the University of Warwick, are also working on a new family of magnetic nanoparticles to help in the conservation effort. They analyzed the sulfur species in the wood before the PEG treatment was applied, and then periodically as the ship dried.

This process will help the team design new targeted treatments to scrub sulfur compounds from the wood of the Mary Rose.

The next step, Schofield says, will be to use a nanocomposite material — based on magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles coated in active chemical agents — to remove these sulfur and iron ions. The nanoparticles will be applied directly to the wood and later guided through its pores to any particular areas using external magnetic fields. Such an approach should allow the team to completely remove the ions from the wood, they say.

“Conservators will have, for the first time, a state-of-the-art quantitative and restorative method for the safe and rapid treatment of wooden artifacts,” Corr says. “We plan to then transfer this technology to other materials recovered from the Mary Rose, such as textiles and leather.”

The paper “Magnetic nanocomposite materials for the archeological waterlogged wood conservation” has been presented today, Tuesday 21th August, at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Cannon pile.

‘Holy Grail’ of shipwrecks discovered, carries up to $17 billion in gold, silver, emeralds

The wreck of the San José, a gold-laden Spanish galleon sunk in 1708, has been identified thanks to its distinctive bronze cannons.

Cannon pile.

To confirm the wreck’s identity, REMUS descended to just 30 feet above the wreck to capture photos of its cannons.
Image credits Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Around 310 years ago, at the height of the War of Spanish Succession (a conflict that Spain and France were fighting against England), one ship laden with treasure set sail from the Americas towards Europe. Beset by English foes, the ship was sunk with all hands aboard in the Caribbean Sea. Now, the ship’s wreck has been officially identified.

Mind the guns

The identification was made possible by the ship’s onboard artillery: the guns, cast in bronze, still sported their ornate and distinctive dolphin engravings. The cannons were investigated by REMUS 6000, an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that got within 30 feet (9.1 meters) of the shipwreck in 2015, according to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

The WHOI had determined the shipwreck’s identity in 2015, but it didn’t have approval from affiliated agencies (Maritime Archaeology Consultants, Switzerland AG, and the Colombian government) to make the findings public until now.

The San José was part of what the Spanish called their ‘treasure’ or ‘silver fleets‘: crafts that would traverse the Atlantic Ocean to shuttle immense riches from the Americas towards Europe, where they would fund Spanish war efforts. Individual fleets were made up of several ships, each highly specialized, to make sure this spoliation went along as smoothly, efficiently, and uninterruptedly as possible. The San José was the largest galleon and flagship of one such treasure fleets. Bristling with 62 guns across its multiple decks made the prospect of attacking the Spanish treasure a very unattractive proposition for both pirates and rival nations.

But hubris, as it often does, would eventually prove to be the galleon’s undoing. While it was the San José’s job to actually ferry the riches every year, the other ships in the fleet were present to guard it against would-be assailants. However, in 1708, as the escorting ships were delayed in linking up with the galleon, Admiral José Fernandez de Santillan, count of Casa Alegre and the ship’s captain, decided to set sail without them.

On June 8, 1708, it was beset upon by four English ships. After a pitched battle, a stray shot ignited the San José’s gunpowder stores — sending the ship, the treasure, and its almost 600-strong crew to the bottom of the sea.

It is, to this day, one of the most expensive maritime losses in the world. The cargo, consisting of gold, silver, and emeralds mined in Peru, is estimated to value between $4 billion and $17 billion today. During the bitter war against England, it would have been a monumental loss for Spain.

The shipwreck was discovered by an international team aboard the Colombian Navy research ship ARC Malpelo on Nov. 27, 2015, at over 2,000 feet (600 meters) deep, near Colombia’s Barú Peninsula. Because the wreck’s identity couldn’t be confirmed at the time of the discovery, the WHOI sent the REMUS 6000 to the site.

“The REMUS 6000 was the ideal tool for the job, since it’s capable of conducting long-duration missions over wide areas,” Mike Purcell, WHOI engineer and expedition leader, said in a statement.

Recordings taken by the autonomous vehicle revealed the ship was partially covered in sediment — however, it also captured the decorative carvings on the cannons on a subsequent dive. From them, Roger Dooley, the lead marine archaeologist at MAC, was able to confirm the ship’s identity, the WHOI adds.

The Colombian government plans to build a museum and conservation laboratory to preserve and display the shipwreck’s contents, including its cannons and ceramics.

340-Year-Old Cheese Recovered From Shipwreck: ‘We think it’s cheese’

It’s perhaps the stinkiest cheese in the world right now, after molding at the bottom of a shipwreck for centuries.

The cheese likely resembled modern-day Roquefort. Photo by Sarah & Boston via Wiki Commons

The royal warship the Kronan suffered a dire fate in 1676, sinking to the bottom of the Baltic, off the coast of Öland. The shipwreck was discovered in 1980, and almost 30,000 artifacts have been recovered since. Many of them were in excellent shape, preserved by the clay around the shipwreck.

Most recently, archaeologists have uncovered a stinky surprise which might tell us a bit about the culinary taste of the 17th century Swedes. According to Lars Einarsson, the dive’s lead archaeologist, the stench was reminiscent of yeast and Roquefort – a type of blue cheese. Einarsson said he thinks it smells intriguing, but it really shouldn’t be tasted.

“It’s been in the mud, so it’s reasonably well preserved, but at the same time it has been at the bottom of the sea for 340 years,” he said. “I certainly don’t recommend tasting it.”

“I think it smells quite nice, because I like exotic food.”

So instead of tasting it, they went for a more scientific approach and sent it to the lab for analysis. The results aren’t in yet, but if their hunch is confirmed, it will be one of the oldest cheeses ever found. However, when it comes to foodstuff, it won’t be even close. Just last year, a team of archaeologists found a shipwreck from the 1st or 2nd century, loaded with Roman garum, a fish-based condiment.

Scientists taste 170 year old shipwrecked beer

Scientists in Finland have been keeping themselves busy testing two different beers… for science, of course. These are not just your average beers though – they’re almost two centuries old, recovered by divers exploring a 1840s shipwreck in the Baltic Sea back in 2010.

Old Beers

All image credits: Londesborough et al, 2015.


When the divers brought the bottles to the surface, due to the change in pressure and temperature, one of the bottles broke, so they did what every responsible adult would have done – they tasted it. However, much to their disappointment, it didn’t really taste like anything, so they did the second thing rational adults would do – they turned the beers in, giving them to scientists, for [ahem] proper research.

When our senses fail, we have machines, and that’s what chemists at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland used to sample the beers (called A56 and C49, for some reason which eludes me). Unfortunately, the initial studies confirmed what the divers found – the seawater destroyed the beer’s taste, and gave it a foul odor.

“Bubbles of gas, presumably CO2, formed during sampling, producing a light foam. Both beers were bright golden yellow, with little haze. Both beers smelt of autolyzed yeast, dimethyl sulfide, Bakelite, burnt rubber, over-ripe cheese, and goat, with phenolic and sulfury notes, the researchers wrote.

The 170-year-old beer.

But they also noticed some other interesting features – the overall shape and detail bottles indicate a high quality technology that was only used in Germany and Northern Europe (but not in Finland) for a few decades, so the list of potential producers has been narrowed down significantly. The also found different hop quantities in the two beers, something which can’t be explained by natural processes or seawater dilution – so we’re dealing with two different types of beer here.

Sour Beer – Rosy or with Green Tea

Both beers, when they were fresh, were much more sour than today’s beers. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that brewers learned how to keep acid-producing bacteria out of beer. Until that breakthrough, pretty much all beer, including A56 and C49, was sour beer. An analysis of yeast-derived flavor compounds (yeast basically gives beer its taste and flavor) showed rose and sweet apples flavors that were high in A56. C49 had a higher concentration of flavor compounds for green tea.
“Both beers were acidic, with pH about 1 unit below modern values,” the researchers wrote. “The color strengths were in the range of modern ales and lagers, and much lower than porters or stouts.”
Overall, the two beers probably tasted very differently one from the other.
“In summary, these two, about 170-year-old bottles contained two different beers, one more strongly hopped than the other with the low α-acid yielding hop varieties common in the 19th century.”

They Lied to Us…

Now that the chemistry of the beers has been uncovered, the next step is, of course, to recreate the beer… but the scientists lied to us!

We first covered this story back in 2013, when the beers were first turned in for analysis, and guess what – the team said the beer will likely go into production in 2014.

“The findings belong to the Government of Åland, an autonomous region of Finland (who also funded the salvage), and the Stallhagen brewery of Åland will now use the recipe to produce the beer – with the biggest part of the profits going to charity, which include marine archaeological work and environmental measures to improve the water quality of the seas”, we wrote in 2013.

Well, it’s 2015, and no one has recreated a modern version of the beers. Oh well, one can only hope that we’ll soon get to taste them… let’s drink to that.

Read the full scientific article here, for free.

Shipwreck site points to an ancient roman battle

During the year 241 B.C., the play was set for the big game. The players were the relatively young and ascending Roman Republic and the old declining Carthage empire; the stake was high as well: domination around the Mediterranean sea, in a series of conflicts called the Punic Wars. The remains of an ancient sunken warship found confirms the a battlepoint where the Romans put the last nail in the Carthage coffin: the final decisive battle between the two major players of the period.

“It was the classic battle between Carthage and Rome,” said archaeologist Jeffrey G. Royal of the RPM Nautical Foundation in Key West, Fla. “This particular naval battle was the ultimate, crushing defeat for the Carthaginians.”

“The historical importance is enhanced by the fact that warships are extremely rare, and this finding gives important clues about how these ships were constructed.
“There’s never been an ancient warship found — that’s the holy grail of maritime archaeology,” Royal told LiveScience. “The most we have are the rams and part of the bow structure. At this point you’ve got to begin to say, ‘We have for the first time archaeologically confirmed an ancient naval battle site,'” Royal said.

So, of course, the question here is: was it Carthaginan or Roman ? Well, marine archaeologists can’t really be sure, but Royal is bettin on the latter. On the ram they found, the inscriptions were in Latin, establishing it as Roman. It also had a number of decorations, which is quite unusual. The rams archaeologists found in 2008 were plain, with no decorations, and rough finger marks still left from when the cast was made.