The remains of 37 Byzantine shipwrecks are giving archaeologists a first-ever look at that empire's long, oared galleys—and may reveal how ship-building evolved during the Middle Ages, LiveScience reports. The shipwrecks were found in a part of Istanbul called Yenikapi, whose harbor was built during the reign of Roman Emperor Theodosius l (379-395 AD) but filled with river silt 1,100 years later and was forgotten. The site, discovered in 2004 during construction of a rail link from Asia to Europe, has yielded leather shoes, wooden combs, camel bones, and human heads that may have belonged to criminals whose skulls were thrown in the harbor. As for the shipwrecks, "never before has such a large number and types of well-preserved vessels been found at a single location," says Cemal Pulak. His new report on eight of the ships, which date from the seventh to 10th centuries, has been published by the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.
As the new report explains, Pulak's examination of the eight ships suggests shipbuilding had progressed to a more advanced state by the 7th century than had been believed, with the shell-first to skeleton-first (with planks then affixed to the frame) transition already underway by then. The Institute of Nautical Archaeology describes Pulak and his team as laboring "for over three years through the heat and dust of summer as well as the sleet and mud of winter" to carefully excavate what included two oared galleys roughly 100 feet long. The six oared ships in the overall find are the first Byzantine galleys ever discovered, with depictions in books and art being the only former indication of their existence. (In Lake Michigan, divers say they've found the "holy grail" of shipwrecks.)