Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
interactive digs
Search for the Venetian Wrecks "Beneath the Black Sea"
Summer 2000

Sorry that this dispatch has taken so long in arriving, but finding an internet connection in Crimea is an adventure unto itself...

At 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the sun is already pounding above camp in full fury as we pack our equipment into the trailer: inflatable boat, outboard engine, tanks, buoys, and dive gear. The UARTC team that day consists of Zelenko and six divers: Valery Salenkyo, Sergei Bogdan, Sergei Ivanov, Lonya Solonkyo, Alexei (Loscha) Kalynychenko, and myself, as well as Zelenko's son Nikita, an aspiring underwater archaeologist who patiently carries equipment, fixes buoys, and washes gear while everyone else dives.


Zelenko learned to dive while studying archaeology at Kyiv University in the late 1980s. His primary focus of study was maritime trade in the Black Sea from the Classical period to the Middle Ages, and he was eager to extend his research to the waters along the Black Sea's northern coast. Zelenko approached the directors of numerous land excavations in Crimea, proposing joint land-sea archaeological expeditions. The land archaeologists, unenthusiastic about what was still a relatively new form of archaeology in the region, rebuffed his proposals. In 1991, INA vice-president Donald Frey was traveling around the Black Sea and met with Zelenko, who explained his frustrations about the lack of cooperation with land archaeologists in the region. Frey suggested that Zelenko establish his own organization, and that year UARTC was born.

Left, Sergei Zelenko, director of the UARTC, and me

Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, diving was primarily the domain of the military. Since independence, diving has become popular but its expense is prohibitive in a country where the average salary is $45 a month. Finding local archaeology students who have the training and means to dive is an extremely difficult task, and Zelenko must supplement his expeditions with divers from other specialties, divers who can afford to spend a month or two working for gratis and willing to put up with the rigorous work and spartan conditions of the camp.

Equipment packed, we pile into our truck and wend our way down through the narrow village streets pulling the trailer behind us, eliciting curious stares from the crowds heading to the beach. It wasn't as busy in Novy Svet last summer, Loscha observes. "But most of these guys are Russians," he says, pointing out the window towards the sunburnt men in muscle shirts, their peroxided wives and ebullient kids in tow. "They usually spend their summers around the Russian resorts of Sochi on the eastern sea coast. But with all of the troubles now in the Caucasus..." he trails off, shrugging.

We head over Mt. Sokol into neighboring Sudak and stop at the local Coast Guard station to request permission to dive that day, a bureaucratic duty that has to be repeated every morning. Then it's on to the beaches east of town, at the base of Mis Meganom. As the truck thuds down the dirt road to the sea, Zelenko briefs me on the wrecks we're looking for.

The reconstructed Genoese fortress at Sudak, which commands a view from every point in town. The name Sudak comes from the Turkic words su, water, and dagh, mountain. The fresh water springs at Sudak allowed a large community to thrive in spite of their arid surroundings. [image]

A document survives in the Venetian archives, a report from a sea lawyer describing an event that occurred at Meganom on October 8, 1431. Two Venetian merchant ships, headed towards the Venetian colony at Tanaïs in the adjacent Sea of Azov, sunk along the cape while seeking shelter during a fierce storm. No description was provided of the ships' contents. "For the Venetian ships, like our thirteenth-century wreck in Novy Svet harbor, we have the exact date on which they sunk...that's really unusual," Zelenko says. "The potential information we can get from such wrecks, especially in terms of fine-tuning ceramic chronologies, is fantastic."

[image] The western flank of Mis (Cape) Meganom

Shipwreck archaeologists, unlike their land counterparts, rely upon brief moments of disaster and loss for their research material. The more unpredictable the weather, the more hostile the natives, the more rugged the coastline, so much the better. Crimea's southern coast makes it a great place to look for wrecks. Here, enormous sharp-edged rocks drop directly into the sea, while others rise up from the surface ten or 20 feet from the coast. The fierce storms of the Black Sea are legendary, and have made many unsuspecting victims from the successive maritime powers that attempted the long trip to the wealthy peninsula.

[image] [image]

The enormous sharp-edged rocks along the coast of southern Crimea drop directly into the sea, while others rise up from the surface 10 or 20 feet from the coast.

While there are few hard and fast rules for shipwrecks, there are some basic concepts that you have to take into consideration when looking for one. Take our Venetian wrecks, for instance. We know that they were trying to get away from the relentless onslaught of the storm, seeking protection somewhere close to the leeward side of the cape. They probably came too close that October day, and the wooden hulls crashed up against the enormous rocks near shore that can rise up to five feet below the surface or less.

In very basic terms, if a sea-going ship sinks quickly enough--and is not completely broken up on the surface--it will eventually settle to the sea bottom and fall over to one side. Bottom sediments and containers in the cargo can provide protection for this side of the wooden hull from organisms that would consume it and physical actions that would continue to break it apart. The side of the hull that lies above, unprotected, eventually breaks down and washes away over the centuries (except in waters where wood-consuming organisms cannot live, like the extremely cold waters of the Baltic or the hydrogen sulfide-rich extreme depths (300+ feet) of the Black Sea). Cargo can often be the determining factor for preservation; lightweight warships--a Roman galley, for instance--would not have a heavy layer of amphorae to protect any remaining hull once it settled on the sea bottom, and over the years all traces of the hull would virtually disappear. Hull preservation is also determined by what happens at the surface. If the combination of storm and rocks is enough to tear a ship apart before it sinks, only the cargo will tumble to the bottom as the bits of hull are carried away.

About 50 feet out from the western flank of the cape, at a depth of about 20 feet, the tumble of large rocks that runs into the sea from shore stop abruptly, marking the boundary with the clean sand bottom that continues away from Meganom. Artifacts from the wrecks would have been washed up into the rocks by successive centuries of storms, and the UARTC team has been slowly swimming the rock/sand boundary along the western side of the cape on and off since June, looking for fifteenth-century pottery that may tip them off on where to concentrate their search. They have now progressed past the end of the cape, and are beginning to swim down its eastern flank. No promising material--yet--but they have found a considerable concentration of tenth-eleventh-century ceramics in an otherwise sterile area that may indicate another wreck.

We arrive at our base on the beach, unpack the trailer and begin to set up the boat. Zelenko outlines the dives for the day: Valery and Loscha will continue swimming the rock boundary out past the tip of the cape, Lonya and I will expand our search along Meganom's western flank for more tenth-eleventh-century pottery, and Bogdan and Ivanov will swim out perpendicular from the same artifact scatter to see what may lie in the deeper waters. Since the diving is rather shallow, we stay down for as long as our 2,000 psi air tanks will allow--usually about 70 or 80 minutes.


Zelenko outlines the dive plan for the day.

Standard-issue Soviet diving gear for the expedition.

Most of the gear belonging to the cash-strapped UARTC consists of the following:

  • Soviet-era regulator with single breathing apparatus ("second stage") and pressure gauge
  • wrist-mounted depth gauge
  • straps to attach the steel double-tank set to the diver's back
  • mask, metal snorkel, weight belt, and fins

While my gear consists of the following:

  • Buoyancy compensator ("B.C."--a sort of vest that can be inflated and deflated to adjust your buoyancy on the surface and at different depths; the tanks are strapped to the back of the vest)
  • Regulator with primary and secondary (backup) second stages; console-mounted depth and pressure gauges, compass, and thermometer; and inflator hose for buoyancy compensator
  • mask, weight belt, neoprene hard-soled boots, knife (for entangled fishing lines, not sharks), and fins

I inevitably feel a bit self-conscious, maybe even a bit embarrassed and extravagant as we set up our dive gear. These guys just strap the tanks to their back and dive right in, while I'm fumbling with hoses, straps, velcro closures. But then I remind myself that this is the set of equipment that I was trained to use, and was used to working in for the hundreds of hours I've spent on the bottom. I've taken the UARTC gear for a test drive before; the second stages have a tendency to flood--especially if you're inverted--and I spent so much time attempting to adjust my buoyancy without a B.C. that I couldn't concentrate on anything else. A remote underwater site in the northern Black Sea is not the ideal location for continued experimentation with life-supporting equipment, I reason, and give my gauges a final check.

Valery and Loscha return from their dive and report no finds. Nothing, zip, nada. Lonya and I then head out to our designated area, bob on the surface for a moment while I take a compass reading, and head down to about 20 feet. Now I can see this rock-sand boundary Zelenko was talking about. Large blocks of stone, covered in thick red and green marine growth and scurrying crabs, cascade down from shore and trail off into clean white sand. Lonya and I head slowly south along the edge of the rocks, keeping about 15 feet apart. We keep our eyes on the bottom, skimming the surfaces of the rocks as closely as we can without kicking up any sediment that would impair our view. I see what looks like an amphora handle wedged between two rocks and begin to reach for it; remembering the scorpionfish in Novy Svet harbor, I stop, grab my knife and gently shift one of the rocks with its blunt-tipped blade. No handle, just another rock that bears an unusual resemblance to one.


Sergei Bogdan, all suited up and ready to go, waits for his ship to come in.

At the end of the day, no great discoveries has been made--just a couple of pottery sherds. We shrug it off and begin to deflate the boat. Some nearby sunbathers and accompanying dogs watch in mild amusement from their beach towels. I read their smiles: On such a gorgeous day, with the sun beginning to turn gold behind the mountains and the waves gently percolating through the rocky beach--who the hell would want to work on a day like this?


All work and no play makes Jack an...archaeologist?

We spend the next couple of days on continued dives at Meganom. I keep encountering what looks like a man-made wall, maybe two or three feet high, along the rock-sand border at a depth of 15 feet. Zelenko calls it a "natural geological occurrence," but I'm not so sure. Loscha and I spend some time investigating the "wall," constantly pointing out to each other perfectly square blocks fitted tightly against each other. I stick my head into recesses in the wall, fanning sand out of the holes with my hand and waiting perfectly still until the muck settles again so I can take a look. We find a couple of upper portions of tenth-eleventh-century amphorae--shoulder, neck and handles--and miscellaneous handles and shoulder sherds wedged between the rocks of the wall. Back on the boat, we discuss our finds and ponder the possibility that this "natural geological occurrence" actually is a wall. Loscha points out the hills above where we just dove. "In the nineteenth century, there was a fishing community here--back when there were sturgeon in the Black Sea to fish for. Who knows, maybe there was the same sort of activity here 1,000 years ago," he pauses. "Soviet hydrologists determined that the sea level has risen a couple of meters since then, so maybe this "wall" was part of a pier or some other sort of construction. Who knows? It needs another look, at least."


Tenth-century "type A" and "type B" amphorae from Meganom, manufactured in the area of Constantinople for Byzantine settlements along the southern Crimean coast.

By the weekend, it's oppressively hot along the coast and at night great bolts of lightning crack across the western edges of the sky. You can smell the rain in the air, but it never arrives. A storm is brewing somewhere, and it's already kicked up the sea where we work. Zelenko decides to take another look at the coastline along the eastern flank of Meganom. The sheer coastal cliffs in this area--including Meganom--were covered by ocean millions of years ago and consist of stratified marine sediments. This fact was nowhere as apparent as here on the beaches east of Mis Meganom; everything looks like a set for a bad B-movie involving dinosaurs, cavemen, UFO's or a combination of all three. Massive, perfectly rectangular slabs of rock jut out of the cliff sides and lay cracked along the shore. I stare at the scatter along the beach--perfectly-squared blocks fitted tightly against each other. I concede that maybe that wall on the western side of Meganom really is a natural geological occurrence. At the top of one cliff, we spot what looks like a beat-up column drum, which on closer inspection reveals itself to be a fossilized tree trunk. I expect a pterodactyl to swoop down at any moment and carry off some unfortunate bather sunning himself on the rock slabs.

[image] class=captionMe and Loscha on our way to investigate the rock "wall"
The fossilized marine sediments that make up the area's coastal cliffs look like the scene from some sci-fi movie[image]
[image]At first we thought this object on top of the cliff was a column drum, until further inspection showed it to be a large fossilized tree trunk

On the way back to the truck, we pass an old warehouse that is now used for storing boats and, more ominously, filling scuba tanks. I remember my last summer in Crimea, when divers would follow us while we worked and, without compunction, dive down to grab some pottery fragments. At night, these guys would spread out their amphorae, still damp and covered with marine growth, for sale on the strip alongside the ice cream and vodka vendors. The police had bigger things to worry about in town--drunken brawls, mafia shootings--and all we could do was attempt to be more discreet about our scientific activities.


A local scuba tank filling station, some of whose clients are interested in the same things we are, but for a different reason

Discretion is still the norm. We try not to bring too much material up, and when we do it's in canvas bags. I think about the thirteenth-century wreck in Novy Svet harbor. UARTC spent last summer gathering surface remains and digging small test trenches to acquire some basic information about the wreck and confirm its date...and then ended the excavation. Zelenko cites a lack of divers and funding to continue the excavation and to conserve what they find, but I can't help but think in the back of my mind that there's another factor at play here, a question of what would happen if too much of the wreck was laid bare to curious passers-by. With the assistance of the Coast Guard, Zelenko did manage to get a couple of dive clubs whose members were particularly egregious visitors to UARTC sites shut down, but there's always somebody out there who wants a nice piece of history for their bookshelf--at any price. "What are you going to do?" Zelenko shrugs. "To the authorities, this is the least of their problems."

That evening, the team and assorted family and friends gather in camp to celebrate Lonya's birthday. The mess table, usually covered in pottery, papers, tea cups, and random diving gear, is groaning under the weight of endless bowls food, and bottles of vodka, local wine, and Novy Svet's most famous product--champagne. I'm a bit taken aback, as Zelenko has never allowed a drop of alcohol inside camp before. But Lonya is one of UARTC's old friends and benefactors--it's his boat in which we put out to sea every day--and it looks like Zelenko has bent the rules in his honor. Everyone grabs a place at the table, laughing, chatting, and digs into what is, by our spartan camp standards, a totally lavish spread: cabbage salad, mixed salad, fruit salad, potatoes, and the first real meat I've had in two weeks (there's no refrigeration in camp, and "meat" usually consists of a pink, spongy material that comes in a can with a doleful-looking cow on the label). The toasting begins, and the tin cups of vodka and champagne are refilled as the cook presents the pièce de résistance...the birthday cake. In spite of the fact that the "kitchen" consists two propane burners on a makeshift counter, our indefatigable cook has managed to create an elaborate confection of crushed biscuits, nuts, and evaporated milk. The top of the cake features a mountain climber proudly planting a flag on the summit of a cookie mountain, honoring Lonya's skills as a top-notch alpinist as well as an accomplished diver. Everyone cheers and pours another round of drinks as Lonya stares at the cake in happiness and astonishment.


Everyone gathers at camp to celebrate Lonya's birthday

Left, the birthday boy. The birthday cake re-creates a moment in Lonya's career as an accomplished mountain climber.

After cake, watermelon, and more wine, everyone at the table settles into contented silence. The divers look exhausted; we had been working a straight week through in fierce heat and equally fierce rain. I ask Zelenko about plans for the next day. He pats his stomach sleepily and smiles. "Tomorrow is a day of rest." [Next...]

Intro | Email Kristin | Map

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America