1. A diver in the Fourni Archipelago takes an amphora to the surface in a lift bag.

Wrecks galore

Last year turned out to be an unprecedented one for marine archaeologists: 45 wrecks were identified in Greece and more than 40 were found in the darkest depths of the Black Sea. Both used sophisticated 3D digital photography and site plans but apart from that the methods of discovery were completely different. In the Fourni Archipelago in the Eastern Aegean, divers plunged over the side of boats much as sponge-fishermen of old would have done (albeit it with scuba gear and inflatable boats) to identify a record haul of wrecks from 525 BC to the early 19th century. In contrast, off the coast of Bulgaria, robotically operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), from the Norwegian-built Stril Explorer, backed up by the latest computer technology, went to record depths of 1800m to produce images of ships lost between the 9th and the 19th centuries.

The Greek wrecks were initially spotted by sponge-diver Anthony Koulouriotis and a free diver named Manos Mitikas. Koulouriotis contacted Peter Campbell of non-profit RPM Nautical Foundation/University of Southampton, and Mitikas informed George Koutsouflakis of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in Athens. Then, over 11 days in September 2015, Koutsouflakis and Campbell identified 22 wrecks, returning in June 2016 with a team of 25 divers, archaeologists and artefact conservators to discover 23 more. The wrecks date from the Archaic Period (700-480 BC) up to the Late Medieval Period (16th century) and more than half are Late Roman (circa AD 300-600).

2. A marine archaeologist measures Archaic period amphorae on the seabed.

'What is astonishing is not only the number of shipwrecks, but also the diversity of the cargos, some of which have been found for the first time,' says Koutsouflakis. 'In a typical survey we locate four or five shipwrecks per season in the best cases. We expected a successful season – but no one was prepared for this. Shipwrecks were found literally everywhere.'

Fishermen and other locals on the islands, which lie between Icaria and Samos near the Turkish coast, have always been aware of sea-bed wreckage, and amphorae have found their way into many homes, but this was the first underwater archaeological expedition to the islands. Cargos point to the importance of long-distance trade between the Black Sea, Cyprus, the Levant and Egypt. The frames of one ship, dating from the 18th or 19th century, had timbers still attached to its keel, and from a depth of 131 feet (40m), the team raised the largest archaic stone anchor ever discovered in the Aegean, over feet (1.8m) long and weighing more than 300 pounds (136kg), which was manhandled ashore.

Such a hands-on approach to underwater archaeology is not possible a mile down in the Black Sea. Once isolated from the Mediterranean, the sea is thought to have broken through the Bosphorus after t he Ice Age, and water levels began to rise. The mission of Southampton University's Black Sea Marine Archaeological Project (MAP) is to map submerged landscapes and identify ancient settlements and climate conditions as the water rose – so they were unprepared for the discovery they made late in September.

3. Hundreds of high resolution pictures were used to create 3D images of preserved ships like
the Ottoman 'Flower of the Black Sea'.

'They were a complete bonus,' said Jon Adams, founding director of the Maritime Archaeology Centre at the University of Southampton and the leader of the project. 'They are astonishingly preserved.'

One outstanding ship was an Ottoman vessel dubbed 'Flower of the Black Sea' for its petal-shaped carvings. Extraordinarily sophisticated high resolution 3D photogrammetry shows the carving, ropes and other deck details. Earlier vessels are from the 14th century when Venetian and Genoan traders dominated the Black Sea, but there was also a ship that Adams sees as representing a turning-point in Mediterranean shipbuilding, when Italy's maritime empires encountered ships from Western Europe. The result was the introduction of the poop deck and stern rudder, replacing the quarter rudders that had been in use since Phoenician times.

'The Fourni shipwrecks contain Black Sea cargos that were en route to the Levant, as well as Levantine cargos that were heading to the north Aegean and the Black Sea,' says Peter Campbell. 'Both projects are elucidating an arterial trade route that was important in every time period. Many of the Black Sea MAP shipwrecks likely passed Fourni, just as many of the Fourni ships sailed the Black Sea. These projects demonstrate how much there
is left to discover.'
• (www.blackseamap.com)
Roger Williams