Dispatch 9: Discovery!

September 9, 2000

[Note: Nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit field dispatches.]

The expedition team has found evidence of human habitation. Diving on a site 311 feet (95 meters) below the surface of the present-day Black Sea, the team found architectural remnants of a wattle and daub structure, pieces of ceramic, and stone tools.

What was an intriguing theory—that early peoples settled the pre-flood landscape of the ancient Black Sea—now appears to be a fact.

Earlier this morning, the expedition team deployed its remotely operated imaging vehicle Little Hercules. They sought to visually inspect a target previously identified during their initial side-scan sonar survey—a rectangular site roughly four meters [13 feet] by 12-14 meters [40-45 feet] long—that did not resemble the sonar profile typical of rocks, trash, or shipwrecks.

At 11:52 a.m., as Little Hercules approached the site, monitors in the expedition control room displayed the first artifact: a notched, hewn beam. Dr. Fredrik Hiebert, chief archaeologist of the expedition, said later that his “jaw literally dropped.” There was no question the object had been modified by human hands.

For the next 30 minutes, crew members piloted Little Hercules over the site. Hiebert visually identified beams, sticks, and blocks of daub—elements of wattle and daub structures built by early Black Sea peoples millennia ago. [“It’s like one of those constructo-kits. All the pieces are there,” Hiebert observed to Sicilian archaeologist Francesco Torre. “It just melted in place.”]

Hiebert also identified bits of ceramic and stone tools. Lying clustered together were several rounded, oval-shaped implements of what appeared to Hiebert to be highly polished stone, each drilled with circular holes. Also found was a chisel or axe head of worked or pecked stone. The later, Hiebert said, bears a striking resemblance to one presently found in a Sinop museum just 40 miles [64 kilometers] away.

The team first investigated the site five days ago (see Dispatch 5), with the imaging vehicle Argus. At that time, the team saw logs, sticks, a stump, and several block-shaped objects. But technical problems with the video imaging system on the ROV prevented the team from gaining a clear, highly-detailed view of the site.

It appeared that Ballard saw enough, however, to hold guarded hope that he’d discovered artifacts from early peoples. Was it prescience gained from years of underwater exploration? One can only wonder.

Perhaps most tantalizing for the expedition team is the abundance of wood at the site. Radiocarbon dating on a small sample would definitively establish a date of the structure. That date, in turn, would answer one of the most significant unresolved questions regarding the natural and human history of the region. When did the Black Sea flood?

Currently the team does not have the mechanical means—nor the requisite approval in its research permit from the Turkish government—to retrieve such a sample.

In the meantime, the team continues their search for more structures. “Now we know their signature,” Ballard said, referring to the site’s sonar profile. “We’ll look through our database for more of the same.”

The team has found what it never thought possible—objects abandoned by human peoples. Against daunting odds, a long-shot.

—Sean Markey

Go to 1999 Dispatches





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