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Ballard Chases History Again In The Black Sea

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« on: August 15, 2007, 12:11:03 am »

Ballard Chases History Again In The Black Sea 
Excavation of shipwreck part of 3-leg research trip 
By Katie Warchut     Published on 8/14/2007 
It's a painfully slow process, watching a robotic arm brush, inch-by-inch, the sediment off a 900-year-old shipwreck 400 feet underwater in the Black Sea.

But when the dust settles, Robert Ballard, president of the Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium, and his team hope to have a better look into a time capsule of early human history.

About 6 miles off the coast of Ukraine, Ballard watched from a NATO research vessel Monday on a high-definition plasma television screen. The paintbrush uncovered what looked like a pewter cup at the bow of the ship.

“What the heck is that, Mr. Expert?” Ballard asked a colleague while speaking with The Day by phone. “We're all scratching our heads.”

The ship, called Chersonesos A, is one of several already found in the Black Sea, but marks Ballard's first deep-sea excavation effort there. Its name refers to the ancient Greek colony off the coast of Crimea.

Once the Jell-O-like sediment is removed, the team of 47 scientists and engineers can start recovering objects from the ship. As a cargo ship, those objects could be containers that held wine, olive oil, or fish, Ballard said.

“It's like stopping a random trailer truck and opening up the back,” he said.

The items will be given to the Ukraine for conservation. The team could also find remains of the ship's crew members, Ballard said.

Two factors make the Black Sea a treasure trove for the underwater explorers. One, it is largely unexplored because access was cut off during the Cold War. Two, its ships and other organic artifacts are well-preserved.

Thousands of years ago, the Black Sea was a freshwater lake that was later filled in by the Mediterranean Sea. The dense salt water sank to the bottom and created an oxygen-free layer. In that part of the water, there are no shipworms to destroy the wood, Ballard explained.

The excavation is part of a three-leg trip led by the institute at the Mystic Aquarium and the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. The first leg returned to the Sea of Crete in the southern Aegean Sea, where researchers found evidence of landslides that could have been triggered by volcanic events, earthquakes or tsunamis.

The second part is the excavation of the Byzantine Era ship and mapping of the seafloor around it. The third leg will compare the Chersonesos to another ship in the southern part of the Black Sea, called Sinop D, the fourth ship found off the coast of a province of Turkey.

Though they expected the Chersonesos to be more poorly preserved than the Sinop because of its depth, Ballard said researchers are learning there may be internal waves or disturbances that move the zone of oxygen-free water.

“It tells us the Black Sea is even more promising than we thought,” Ballard said.

Ballard hopes the ships will lead to the discovery of even older ones.

“We're finding the I-95 highway of the ancient world,” he said.

It's an area that dates back to the early origins of human beings. Some people believe it's the location of the Biblical flood; others the story of Jason and the Argo, he said.

“We just find out what the truth is,” Ballard said. “Humans have been coming here for a long, long time.”

The expedition, which ends Aug. 27, will update the Black Sea exhibit at the aquarium with new features.

Immersion Presents, a science-education program founded by Ballard, will produce a series of 15-minute updates daily at noon on the Web from Aug. 18 to 26. They will feature an introduction by Ballard, live updates from Bridget Buxton, assistant professor of history at URI and the expedition's archaeology director, and Katherine Croff, a doctoral student at URI and chief scientist on the cruise, and an e-mail question-and-answer session.

To see a live feed from the expedition, visit
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