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Black Sea underwater archeology
Serhiy Voronov is head of the Department of Underwater Archeology of Ukraine; he not only works as administrator but takes part in underwater archeological expeditions. Mr Voronov was interviewed for Welcome to Ukraine Magazine by Anastasiya KOKHAN.
The southern shores of Ukraine are washed by two seas — the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.
To scientists and to archeologists the Black Sea is a remarkable feature because its lower levels are, to all intents and purposes, almost biologically dead — not because of modern pollution but because of continued weak ventilation of the deep layers. Oxygen is dissolved only in the upper water levels; below a depth of about a hundred meters (three hundred feet), there is no oxygen; in those reaches the sea is contaminated by hydrogen sulfide, which results in a saturated, gloomy, “dead” zone frequented only by adapted bacteria.
Such conditions at the bottom of the sea are ideal for preserving in an almost intact condition the ships that sank in the past millennia. Not only the examination of the wrecks is of a great interest to historians — their cargos are of even a more valuable importance for archeologists and historians. Underwater archeology in the Black Sea is a rather recent development but it has already rendered many exciting finds.
How did you get interested in underwater archeology?
I was educated at a technical marine college and then at a history department of a university. I worked for some time as a sailor but then I got bored with the routine and felt I needed to do something more exciting. I was a scuba diving enthusiast and a step from scuba diving through history interests to underwater archeology was sort of a natural one.
I’m afraid that in this country, and probably in many others, one should not expect any longer any important finds produced by the “on-the-ground” archeology — and not because there is little more to find in the ground preserved from the past ages, but because “black archeologists” (Mr Voronov refers to those diggers who illegally conduct archeological excavations and then sell the discovered artifacts at the black market; since these “black archeologists” are in most cases without any special education or training, they not only rob the historians of valuable finds but destroy all the related valuable historical and archeological information during their digging) seem to have dug up everything of any historical value. The situation in underwater archeology is not as bad but it’s getting worse, and we should hurry up in procuring for science and history whatever can still be salvaged.
The department I head was set up only four years ago, and since then we have accumulated enough finds for more than one museum.
Before we continue with your story about underwater archeology, may I ask you what motivated you to become a sailor?
Books! And, of course, a streak of sea adventure in my character which comes from I don’t know where. I was an avid reader of books of adventures and seafaring. My mother, incidentally, was not too happy with my ambition to become a sailor… Speaking of books — we do find books in the wrecks on the bottom of the sea. One of the most recent finds was a logbook that we discovered on board a navy ship at the depth of about 36 meters (over a hundred feet). The ship was sunk during the First World War, and its logbook tells us the story of the ship and its crew.
Who finances your archeological expeditions?
Money is always a problem. I spend a lot of time looking for donors, sponsors, enthusiasts and support, but miraculously I do find enough money for about fifteen expeditions of out of twenty planned.
Sometimes we just get lucky. When, for instance, we were engaged in a US-Ukrainian joint underwater archeological expedition off the coast of the Crimea, we invited the President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, who happened to be at that time in the Crimea to pay a visit to our ship. He did. We showed him our finds, we told him in detail about our work. He showed a lot of interest and promised to help. He did — the direct result of this help was the establishment of a museum which will be opened soon in Kyiv. Among the exhibits there will be Turkish and Italian artifacts of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A particularly valuable find to be exhibited will be a tea pot that dates from the seventeenth century.
Who usually takes part in your expeditions?
You mean “who” from the professional point of view? Usually, we need about six archeologists proper and about three experts who can do the work of conserving the finds and dating them.
Probably “preserving” would be a better word. You see, whatever ancient artifacts we find at the bottom of the sea and then bring them up, they are immediately exposed to oxygen and oxygen can destroy them, in some cases, in a matter of minutes. Iron and wood are particularly vulnerable. So we have to use some chemicals to literally preserve these artifacts from disintegration. We’ve developed our own techniques and methods, and I think in this we are ahead of other countries of the Black Sea area which carry out some underwater archeology. There can’t be universal recipes because the salinity of different seas and oceans is different, and in every individual case you have to use individual approach.
Do you have any plans for shooting a documentary about your work and your expeditions?
We provide all the information journalists want, we’ve had proposals to have a documentary made, but none of them has come to anything yet. Once in a while, this idea gets discussed, but no further moves follow. I think the main reason for the failure to have a movie made is the absence of guaranteed financing. And it’s a pity because I’m sure a film about underwater archeology and our work would be of a great interest to many. There are amazing discoveries that have been made and that are waiting to be made. The unique physical conditions of the Black Sea — hydrogen sulfide — are excellent for preventing things that fall to the bottom from decay and disintegration for centuries. The absence of oxygen and consequently of any life is ideal for preservation. And in the past several millennia a lot of ships have sunk in the Black Sea. Not all of them are of archeological and historical value, of course. There is a special international convention that protects shipwrecks which are older than a hundred years, but I’ve filed a proposal with UNESCO suggesting that ships that sank during the Second World War be also protected by law. Besides, many ships that sank or were sunk during the war had a lot of people on board and should be regarded as common graves.
Let’s get back to your finds — what is the most ancient one?
It’s in between seven and twenty million years old. No, it’s not an artifact, it’s bones of a very ancient rhino. We’ve passed them for safe keeping to the Institute of Archeology of Ukraine… Unfortunately, there is a problem with exhibiting our big-sized finds. Once, for example, we discovered and raised to the surface a very old plane. But, first, it had to be treated with chemicals to prevent it from falling apart, and second, insurmountable obstacle — a suitable place had to be found for exhibiting it.
But you’ve mentioned a museum that is to be opened?
Yes. I hope things will proceed according to plan, but big-sized finds are very difficult to move and ship long distances. Besides, there’s this perennial problem with money. Once, we found a soviet WWII fighter plane with the remains of a pilot in it — all we could do was to bury the remains and return the plane to the bottom of the sea. Close to that place there rests on the bottom a sailing ship of the times of the Crimean War (mid-nineteenth century) in excellent condition, the only one of its kind known to date, and still a bit further away lies a passenger ship of more recent times. I think that underwater tourism in small subs could be organized to such sites.
But you do try to bring up from the bottom whatever you find of archeological interest and historical value — and of manageable sizes?
We sure do. You can’t properly study an artifact at the bottom of the sea — but if it finds its way to a museum or a lab it can be thoroughly examined, its age can be determined with the use of modern technologies, and historians and general public can have access to it.
Do you organize exhibitions of your finds?
We do, and we take part in international exhibitions of various kinds as well. And not necessarily of underwater finds. This year, for example, we are going to provide whatever support we can for the Silver Shark Festival of “underwater art”, that is art literally created under water. We hope that Andre Laban, one of the members of the team of the famous underwater explorer Jacques-Ives Cousteau, will be able to attend the exhibition. (Jacques-Ives Cousteau, 1910–1997; French naval officer, marine explorer, author, and documentary filmmaker; in 1943 he and French engineer Emile Gagnan perfected the aqualung; Cousteau made full-length films, film shorts, and numerous television films, some of which won Academy Awards; Cousteau wrote many books, including a series entitled Undersea Discoveries of Jacques-Yves Cousteau). He is a superb underwater artist. Incidentally, his ancestors lived in Lviv.
We have recently had a book published in Ukraine, an encyclopedia of shipwrecks. In addition to a museum in Kyiv, we hope that a section of underwater archeology will be opened soon in the Marine Museum in Sevastopol.
Photos have been provided
by the Department of Underwater Archeology of Ukraine
Map of the Black Sea (Pontus Euxinus) in antiquity.
One of the ships used during the Black Sea
underwater archeological expeditions.
The bell from the British ship Agnes Blaikie
which was sunk in 1854 during the Crimean War.
One of the 200 amphorae which were found
on board an ancient Byzantine shipwreck being
chemically treated to prevent damage
by its exposure to the air.
The remotely controlled Hercules submersible
takes photos of ancient amphorae.
Cleaning up the artifact discovered
on the bottom of the sea.
Lifting of the ancient amphorae to the surface.
Amphorae from an ancient Byzantine shipwreck.
President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko and his wife
Kateryna visiting the ship during an underwater
archeological expedition led by S. Voronov.
A newly discovered shipwreck (possibly a British
ship Brente of the time of the Crimean war).
A close-up of the amphorae from
an ancient Byzantine shipwreck.
First examination of a shipwreck (the stam
of a possibly British ship Woodvell
of the time of the Crimean war).
Artifact preservation experts.