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Ancient Cargo Details Black Sea Trade

January 16, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Writers in antiquity tell of dried fish, a staple of the ancient Greek diet, being imported from great distances. Now there’s evidence of just how far _ from Crimea, in what is now Ukraine.

An amphora, or clay jar, located at the site of the oldest shipwreck yet found in the Black Sea contained fish bones, believed to be from fish being shipped to Greece from Crimea on the north coast of the Black Sea.

The discovery off the coast of Bulgaria was announced this week by undersea explorer Robert Ballard of the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn. Ballard is best known for finding the remains of the Titanic and other famed shipwrecks.

All that remains of this ancient ship is its cargo of amphorae, used in antiquity as shipping containers for a variety of goods.

The amphora containing the fish, over 3 feet tall, is of a type made at the time in the area around the city of Sinop on the south coast of the Black Sea, in what is now Turkey.

Trading in fish from the Crimea means sailing halfway across the Black Sea, through the straits of Bosporus and Sea of Marmara and across the Aegean Sea to Greece hundreds of miles away.

Dwight Coleman, the institute’s chief scientist for the expedition, which was co-sponsored by the National Geographic Society with help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the sunken vessel probably started from Sinop with its amphorae. It then sailed north to the Crimea to collect the cargo of fish before heading along the coast toward Greece, but sank short of that goal.

Dried fish was a popular food in ancient Greece, used by the army and the general population, explained Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania.

Hiebert said many dishes at that time were served with garum, a sauce made from fermented fish such as anchovies. When he heard that the amphora contained fish bones, Hiebert said, he assumed they were from anchovies.

But the bones were 4 inches to 5 inches long, much too large for an anchovy.

Instead, they turned out to be bones from a type of freshwater catfish caught in the Crimea area and rivers flowing into the nearby Azov Sea, one of the major fishing grounds of antiquity, Hiebert said. Greek colonies are known to have existed in Crimea at that time.

Marks on the bones showed the fish had been cut into a size commonly used at the time for drying as steaks, known as tarichos in ancient Greece. Classical historians such as the Greek Strabo have described fish steaks that came from the Black Sea, Hiebert noted.

Radiocarbon dating placed the vessel between the third and fifth century B.C., the institute’s Coleman said.

``It is the oldest ship found in the Black Sea, but there is evidence of earlier sailing there. It’s only time until an older shipwreck is found,″ Hiebert said.

The Black Sea is unique in that its deepest regions have no oxygen in the water, a condition that can help preserve ancient wood. While the wreck described this week was in a shallower area and the wood had been eaten away, researchers hope to find ancient vessels intact in deeper regions.

Older shipwrecks have been found in the Mediterranean, but the Black Sea has been little explored in modern times because of political disputes going back centuries. Only since the end of the Soviet Union have Western scientists dived extensively there.

This ship was found with the assistance of a Bulgarian submersible, and Ballard said further exploration is planned next year with a new submarine.


On the Net:

National Geographic: http://www.nationalgeographic.com

Institute for Exploration: http://www.mysticaquarium.org

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