Lonely Planet Writer

41 ancient shipwrecks discovered at the bottom of Bulgaria’s Black Sea

Forty-one ancient shipwrecks have been accidentally discovered by an international team of maritime archaeologists performing geophysical surveys of the Black Sea.

The project's research vessel entering the ocean.
The project’s research vessel entering the ocean. Image by Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz

The shipwrecks, which lie at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Bulgaria, date from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods and it’s believed that they were used for trade rather than battle. The vessels are well preserved due to the Black Sea’s anoxic conditions, which sees little oxygen at depths of more than 150m below sea level.

A shipwreck from the Ottoman period discovered in 300m of water. Many of its timbers are carved.
A shipwreck from the Ottoman period discovered in 300m of water. Many of its timbers are carved. Image by Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz

This major discovery was made with the help of advanced underwater survey equipment. The scientists were also able to create compelling images of the shipwrecks using high-resolution 3D photography.

A shipwreck from the Medieval period of a type we know from history and a few fragmentary archaeological finds but never before seen so complete
A shipwreck from the Medieval period of a type we know from history and a few fragmentary archaeological finds but never before seen so complete Image by Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz

The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project  has been investigating the seabed using sonar and deep-sea diving ROVs (remotely operated vehicles).  As stated on the project’s website, its aim is to determine the impact of sea-level change on early human civilisations in this region, as well as to record and study the submerged cultural heritage of Bulgaria.

A photogrammetric model of a Byzantine wreck discovered in 95m of water
A photogrammetric model of a Byzantine wreck discovered in 95m of water Image by Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz

The earliest known inhabitants of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast were the cave-dwelling Neolithic peoples, and many museums along the coast such as the Varna Archaeological Museum have artefacts from this period as well as the Copper and early Bronze Ages.

The stern of the Ottoman shipwreck discovered in 300m of water. The carved tiller lies by the stern post and rudder. The astonishing preservation of organic materials is shown by the coils of rope still hanging from the timbers.
The stern of the Ottoman shipwreck discovered in 300m of water. The carved tiller lies by the stern post and rudder. The astonishing preservation of organic materials is shown by the coils of rope still hanging from the timbers. Image by Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz

From the 7th century BC, Greek merchants founded ports including Apollonia (present-day Sozopol), Odessos (Varna), Mesembria (Nesebâr) and Pirgos (Burgas).

 The team of maritime archaeologists on board Stril Explorer during the survey programme in the Bulgarian Black Sea. From left to right Felix Pedrotti, Dr Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz, Dr Dragomir Garbov and Dr Thomas Dhoop.
The team of maritime archaeologists on board Stril Explorer during the survey programme in the Bulgarian Black Sea. From left to right Felix Pedrotti, Dr Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz, Dr Dragomir Garbov and Dr Thomas Dhoop.

The Romans followed in the 1st century AD; among the remnants of their presence are Varna’s Roman Thermae. In the Middle Ages, the coastal region was dominated first by Byzantium and later the Ottoman Empire, with cities like Varna and Sozopol thriving as commercial ports.