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Excavating the 'perfect ship'

Somewhere off Turkey's Black Sea coast, in a grave a thousand feet beneath the waves, a ghostly mast stands erect in the gloom.

Preserved for 1,500 years by the scarcity of oxygen in the Black Sea's depths, the wooden mast provides a tantalizing hint of the historical treasure that archaeologists have now begun to excavate.

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It is "a perfect wooden ship; it is perfectly preserved," said Lisa Jaccoma, a vice president at the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration. "It is sitting upright, in a silt layer, with a mast coming off it with a piece of line on top. It's extraordinary."

Early this month, a high-tech expedition led by marine explorer Robert D. Ballard began to explore this 45-foot wreck and three others his team found nearby during a 2000 expedition. Using a custom-built submersible, they launched the first robotic excavation in the history of marine archaeology, gently exposing and retrieving samples of the ships, their cargoes and the sediments around them.

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Ballard, who discovered the remains of the RMS Titanic and the German battleship Bismark in the 1980s, also took samples from what appears to be the stone-and-wood foundation of a building inundated by the Black Sea more than 7,000 years ago. Scholars have linked that cataclysm to the Biblical account of Noah's flood.

The expedition left the Black Sea last week and sailed to the eastern Mediterranean to explore a pair of wrecked Phoenician ships found 1,300 feet down, off the Israeli coast. Dated to 750 B.C., they are the oldest ships ever found in the deep ocean.

Enthusiasts worldwide have been following the $3 million expedition via live video and audio links beamed back by satellite and onto the Internet. Some students and scholars have had two-way communications with the team.

"Rarely do you get the glare of the lights as you get when you're on a Bob Ballard expedition," said Harvard archaeologist Lawrence Stager, who is leading the Mediterranean leg of the mission. "The great thing is, he lets the scientists do what they're qualified to do, and he does not compromise any of that for the publicity."

Some details of the 41-day mission, including its timing and site locations, have not been disclosed because of political tensions in the region and a concern about unwanted visitors.

The expedition was organized by the Institute for Exploration and the University of Rhode Island's Institute for Archaeological Oceanography, which Ballard leads. Funding comes from the National Geographic Society and the Shelby White/Leon Levy Expeditions; the National Science Foundation; the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Navy.

In a 1976 book titled Deep Water, Ancient Ships, ocean explorer Willard Bascom theorized that low oxygen levels below 650 feet in the Black Sea would exclude wood-boring organisms that consume wooden wrecks in shallower water. He even predicted that the "perfect ship" would be found sitting upright on the sea bottom, its mast still upright.

Ballard's 2000 expedition found just such a ship, and three others, less well-preserved. Carbon dating linked them all to the Roman or Byzantine periods, between the 4th and 6th centuries. The three less-intact ships, found just 330 feet down, spilled their cargoes, packed in clay jugs called amphorae. But the deep-water wreck's secrets would have to be excavated.

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"We are not going to raise the ship; that's a given," Jaccoma said before the mission. "We're primarily interested in finding out what's down there."

The Black Sea archaeology was guided by Fredrik T. Hiebert, of the University of Pennsylvania. After detailed mapping, samples of the ships' wood and amphorae, and sediment cores were lifted to the surface and transferred to Turkey's Sinop Museum for analysis and conservation.

Critical to the mission is Ballard's new submersible, called Hercules. The 7-foot vehicle is equipped with sonar that can peer through silt. Its water jets can scoop, loosen and expel sediment, guided by advanced cameras and high-definition TV. Its robotic arms even have a "force-feedback" system that allows the surface operator to "feel" the delicate objects that the robotic arms are handling.

Until now marine archaeologists haven't been able to excavate sites deeper than scuba divers could reach. On deep wrecks, all they could do was pluck artifacts from the bottom. "If [Hercules] performs the way we think it's going to," Stager said, "it will serve as a real pioneering effort in deep-sea exploration and excavation."

The team's base is the R/V Knorr, a 35-year-old Navy research vessel operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Researchers on board also conducted intense sonar mapping and sampling at what appears to be the foundation of a one-time human habitation more than 300 feet down.

That discovery made headlines in 2000 because it appears to support theories about a cataclysmic flood in the Black Sea 7,600 years ago.

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In their 1999 book Noah's Flood, Columbia University geologists William B.F. Ryan and Walter C. Pitman argued that as the climate warmed after the last Ice Age, melting glaciers elevated water levels in the Mediterranean. The salt water broke through a natural dam at the Bosporus in Turkey, then thundered into the Black Sea - until then a freshwater lake.

By one estimate, Black Sea waters would have risen six inches a day, inundating more than 60,000 square miles of shoreline in less than a year. Ryan and Pitman believe the catastrophe was the source of the flood legends common to so many regional traditions, including Noah's ark in the Bible.

Wood plucked from the site in 2000 turned out to be only 200 years old. This year's sampling may settle the issue.

In the eastern Mediterranean, Ballard's team planned to excavate the remains of one of the Phoenician cargo ships. Stager believes the pair sank in a storm in about 750 B.C. - the time of the poet Homer and the Biblical prophets Amos and Micah.

Discovered by the U.S. Navy in 1997 and studied by a Ballard expedition in 1999, the ships carried tons of wine packed in hundreds of clay amphorae. "One specific question is how were these ships built, and of what materials? This is still a blank for this period," Stager said.

The ship apparently sailed from Lebanon to Alexandria, in Egypt, he said, and the cargo may reveal volumes about trade in the ancient world. Initial images snapped last week showed items that included amphorae, lamps and ingots - "a veritable Wal-Mart of the ancient world," Ballard reported.

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Stager said investigators "want to dig deeper into the hold of the ship," Stager said. "And with this new robot we should be able to do that delicately enough to simulate pretty much how we would do it on shallow water or even on land ... It's all quite exciting."


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