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Ballard: Black Sea a unique shipwreck museum

Undersea explorer Robert Ballard
Undersea explorer Robert Ballard

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CNN's Bill Hemmer talks to Bob Ballard about the Black Sea shipwreck (January 16)
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Undersea explorer Robert Ballard, best known for finding the remains of the luxury liner Titanic, and his team are focusing on what are believed to be some of the oldest shipwrecks ever found.

The ships, discovered last summer, went down sometime between the fifth and third century B.C. in the Black Sea off the coast of what is now Bulgaria.

Ballard, who is president of the Institute of Exploration at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut and a National Geographic explorer in residence, discussed the find and its significance Thursday with CNN's Bill Hemmer.

HEMMER: Do you just scan waters? To find something or did you have information we need to look here?

BALLARD: We have a great team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. We were studying a trade route we knew the Greeks were using back in the third, fourth, fifth centur[ies] B.C. You see this was right after Alexander the Great conquered the civilized world and they were actually in the Black Sea, believe it or not, for fish. And this ship was bringing back -- we found inside [one of] these amphorae [two-handled storage jars], believe it or not, an 8-foot catfish that had been filleted into fish steak salted, sort of a fish and chips.

Our team could identify the species of fish and could see the butcher marks on the bones. They were coming back, probably from the Crimea. Although the trip probably originated, because we know these amphorae were made in Sinop, in north-central Turkey.

We used a submarine after we found it with sonar -- we're working with the Bulgarian Oceanographic Institution there. And we [dived] down and brought up this jar ... and in it were the fish steaks.

HEMMER: You mentioned the significance. How significant is it? What has it taught you about the Earth at that point?

BALLARD: This is really right after the Greeks' rise, the height of the Greek empire. It's called the Hellenic Period, and they basically had moved colonies into the Black Sea and they were bringing back fish from their colonies, much like the English empire.

HEMMER: What was the condition of the ship?

BALLARD: This is in an interesting area. You see wood. Normally, you do not see wood. Normally in a normal typical environment, some of the discoveries we've made in the past, wood does not survive because there are wood borers. Titanic's deck was eaten, the grand staircase was eaten.

The ships went down in the Black Sea sometime between the fifth and third century B.C.
The ships went down in the Black Sea sometime between the fifth and third century B.C.

But here you have this anoxic water [without oxygen] that does not permit life to exist, so you get very high states of preservation.

HEMMER: Is that exclusive to the Black Sea?

BALLARD: Yes, it's very unique. The Black Sea is like no other museum on the planet. Incredible history there.

HEMMER: If you remember what they found off the coast of northern Egypt a few years ago, this is going back to years ago. Alexandria. Is that similar?

BALLARD: That's stone, and stone cannot be eaten. These are wooden ships. And in fact just deeper than that we found one with its mast up and rigging. And we're going back in with National Geographic and NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the Navy -- they're sponsoring a big expedition next summer to do the first excavation of a ship of antiquity in the deep sea to archaeological standards.

HEMMER: What do you expect to see in the future?

BALLARD: We're going to see what's inside, a lot more is coming.

HEMMER: Anything to guess for us?

BALLARD: I think we will find, in some cases, we might find crew members. We have a gorgeous exhibit of our Mystic Aquarium, and you ought to come and see it because we put a lot of this on exhibit.

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