MIT students help uncover evidence of ancient human habitation in Black Sea


Two MIT graduate students working under David A. Mindell, Dibner Associate Professor of the History of Manufacturing and Technology, and under the auspices of MIT's Deep Sea Archaeology research group, are key players in last week's discovery of well-preserved human dwelling sites at the bottom of the Black Sea.

Brendan Foley, a marine archaeologist and a doctoral student in the history of technology in the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS), said, "We are all very excited about the pre-flood site. It's an amazing discovery that we've been working toward for my entire four years at MIT. Personally, I am even more enthusiastic about finding perfectly preserved wrecks in the deep water, and that's still to come."

A National Geographic expedition led by Robert Ballard aboard the Northern Horizon has discovered remnants of human habitation more than 300 feet below the surface of the Black Sea, approximately 12 miles off the Turkish shore.

Photodocumentation of the structure will continue during the five-week expedition.

BLACK SEA ONCE A LAKE

Scientists theorize that the Black Sea was a freshwater lake until it was flooded by the Mediterranean Sea about 7,000 years ago.

This cataclysmic flood was tentatively linked to the biblical story of Noah by geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman of Columbia University in their 1997 book Noah's Flood. Their theory of a great flood in the Black Sea was based on their discovery of a drowned landscape as seen in seismic profiles and sediment cores.

"No one knows what a Neolithic dwelling site actually looks like, so there is a lot of speculation about the video images we've captured from the site," Mr. Foley relayed to Professor Mindell last week from the ship. "It's very hard to tell if the blocks we see are made of mud or stone or even wood. The small 'tools' look like they are fashioned from stone to me, but other eyes see wood.

"What is clear is that this is not a naturally occurring set of objects. The things we see were modified by humans. It is not a shipwreck site, and the placement of the items is too tight to have resulted from random dropping from the sea surface. We are left, then, with the only possibility being a pre-flood human activity," he said.

DEEP-SEA SHIPWRECKS

The widely reported discovery of human habitation is only one goal of the cruise. Professor Mindell said that the researchers are now moving into deep water to look for ancient shipwrecks, which have been well-preserved in the oxygen-free waters. "They also have already found several less-preserved ancient wrecks, called 'amphora wrecks,' in the shallower water," he said.

After these discoveries, the next step will be to return to the Black Sea to do detailed modeling and excavation of the sites. Mr. Foley and Katherine (Katy) Croff, who graduated from MIT in June with a bachelor's degree in ocean engineering (OE) and is now a graduate student in that department, will leave the ship shortly to participate in field-testing an acoustic sensor being developed by Professor Mindell and his group.

"Out here, I'm learning that nothing goes as planned," said Ms. Croff. To add to the general confusion, the National Geographic film crew and Turkish paparazzi are on board the vessel. "There's a lot of exciting stuff around here. You know, going to sea really should be required for OE students," she said.

Ms. Croff and Mr. Foley are working to establish technologies and methodologies in the new domain of deep sea archaeology. Mr. Foley participated in surveys off Sinop, Turkey in 1998 led by Professor Mindell, and both students took part in the 1999 surveys led by Dr. Ballard; Fredrik Hiebert, chief archaeologist for the project from the University of Pennsylvania; and Professor Mindell. The earlier surveys located the ancient coastline and narrowed the field for this year's efforts.

Because of a schedule change, Professor Mindell was not able to participate in this year's cruise due to teaching obligations at MIT, but his group is developing technologies to be used to return to the Black Sea to survey these and any other sites that might be found.

UNCOVERING BURIED CITIES

Using acoustic techniques, the MIT research team is learning to image archaeological sites that are buried in the mud. The goal is to model an entire site to an accuracy of centimeters, in three dimensions, without touching it.

Later this month, Professor Mindell, Mr. Foley, Ms. Croff and several other MIT Sea Grant students will bring their instruments to Maine to test the technique on a warship from the Revolutionary War that is buried in the mud.

Mr. Foley said that on the Black Sea expedition, the students' responsibilities range from deck chores and navigating the ship to contributing to the archeological analyses of the site and interacting with the media.

"Katy and I both stand watches in the control van. She navigates the ship and vehicles and also reviews the data with Bob (Ballard). She and I both help with basic operations: vehicle launch and recovery and deck chores related to the vehicles.

"Having a background in both archaeology and in STS really helps, as there are so many different groups on board -- scientists, engineers, archaeologists and media.

"It's my job to make sure the technical people understand the archaeological standards, while ensuring that the archaeologists realize the strengths and limits of the technical systems."

In addition, Mr. Foley's maritime archaeology expertise comes in handy when the team locates shipwrecks.

In addition to the dwelling sites, the expedition has located two ancient shipwrecks at the same depth that appear to date to the fourth and sixth centuries. They are "loaded" with Sinopian amphora, identical to the types on display in the Sinop Museum in Turkey, Mr. Foley reports.

Because of the anoxic environment, a shipwreck in deep water may be highly preserved. "I am so excited to see the first glimpse of a Black Sea deep-water wreck that I came into the control van at 3am local time, an hour before my watch started. I think we are going to make another huge discovery in the next few days -- a truly ancient, remarkably well-preserved shipwreck. I'm greedily hoping that I'll be the one to mark the sonar target, and that the wreck will come into the vehicle's lights while I am on watch," Mr. Foley said. Dr. Ballard, president of the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, CT, is best known for finding the Titanic in 1985.

In addition to MIT and the Institute for Exploration, expedition participants come from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Marr Vessel Management Ltd., Woods Hole Marine Systems Inc., the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

At MIT, the Office of the Dean of Humanities and the research group in Deep Sea Archaeology provided the financial support for Mr. Foley and Ms. Croff's participation.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 20, 2000.


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