Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeology fellow at National Geographic, said the mechanical excavator’s success ushers in a new era in ocean archaeology.
“We now have the technical capabilities to excavate scientifically in underwater environments,” the former University of Pennsylvania professor said. “We’ve moved beyond the grab-and-look part of (underwater) archaeology.”
The team also used high-definition cameras, a new Internet bandwidth and satellite hookups to link scientists and schoolchildren live to the mission — the first time all such technologies had been employed simultaneously on an expedition.
On another leg of the journey, the explorers took a closer look at a 1,500-year-old trading vessel that they say is the best preserved ship of the Byzantine period ever located.
Scientists were especially interested in this site, dubbed “Shipwreck D,” because the Black Sea’s unique, oxygenless water leaves everything on the bottom mostly intact. Shipwreck D is so well-preserved that cord tied in a V-shape at the top of the trading vessel’s wooden mast is still clearly visible.
Ancient honey trade
Researchers noted the ship’s planks are coated with a substance believed to be wax, an indication the merchants were transporting honey, said Cheryl Ward, a maritime archaeologist at Florida State University who led the study of Shipwreck D and three other ship ruins nearby.
Hercules brought up six amphoras — slender, carrot-shaped shipping jars — from which the sediment will be analyzed for traces of pollen that would solidify the honey theory.
Ward thinks the ship could have been part of a transport fleet for a family-owned grocery store.
“These were like the 18-wheelers that hauled our food from production to market,” Ward, 43, explained by telephone from an archaeological dig in Turkey.
She thinks the boat was one of hundreds plying the Black Sea in the 5th and 6th centuries in a frenetic outburst of commercial activity, as Rome ordered more taxes to be collected from its eastern province. The edict spawned a boom in local production and trading among communities across the Mediterranean and north to the Crimea.
“It was a very, very dynamic time,” Ward said. “It’s like the early ’90s Silicon Valley takeoff (when) everyone had a lot of great ideas.”
“It proves we’re part of a longtime continuum of humanity,” she added.
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