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Professor Lionel Casson's Acceptance Speech to the AIA, January 8, 2005 Volume 58 Number 2, March/April 2005

To have been selected for the Institute's Gold Medal is the high point in my scholarly career. And so it is with inexpressible regret that I find myself unable to undertake the trip to Boston to receive it in person and to attend the Seminar that has been arranged in my honor. My heartfelt thanks go to dear friends and colleagues who have brought about these tributes.

The choice of maritime history as my field of study was the result, in a way, of two pieces of luck. The first dates back to my teens, when I was persuaded by a friend to chip in with him and buy a small sail boat. This enabled me to learn the behavior of boats under sail, that one can drive them easily and directly with the wind blowing from behind or from the sides but, when it blows ahead, one can proceed only with difficulty and indirectly, by going at an angle to it in zigzag fashion, a slow and laborious procedure. The second piece of luck took place in my first year at graduate school. Volume X of the original edition of the magisterial Cambridge Ancient History had just arrived at the University Library, fresh off the press. A chapter on Rome's commerce and industry by an eminent specialist in ancient economic history interested me particularly. As I flipped its pages, my eye caught a line that brought me up short. In the section titled "The Quickening of Economic Life," I read that "it was possible to reckon on being in Rome some eighteen days after leaving Alexandria, or, under favorable conditions, to be in Puteoli a mere nine days later." Nine days from Alexandria to Puteoli? That wasn't to come to pass until the age of steam! It so happens, Pliny the Elder, among his examples of unusually fast sailing voyages, includes a nine-day run from Puteoli to Alexandria. This is not hard to believe: in summer, when most ancient sea travel took place, the prevailing winds over the waters between Italy and Egypt are strong northwesterlies; a vessel would thus have a perfectly favorable wind all the way. Suddenly an explanation of the author's statement dawned on me: unaware of the limitations of sailing vessels, he must have assumed that, if it took nine days to get from Puteoli to Alexandria as Pliny said, it took the same amount of time to get back. But getting from Puteoli to Alexandria was with a favorable wind, so, it follows as night the day, going the other way was against the wind, and thus could well have taken no nine days but over two months or more! I wrote a term paper on the matter and got my first A+--and made up my mind then and there that ancient sea travel was the path to pursue. I would start with Cecil Torr's splendid little book, Ancient Ships, published in 1895, with its exhaustive listing of all the evidence from ancient literature, epigraphy, numismatics, etc., and bring it up to date.

And then a stroke of extraordinarily good luck introduced me to maritime archaeology at its very beginnings. In 1953 my wife and I were touring in south France and I picked up the news that Jacques Cousteau, the noted oceanographer, had for the moment turned from oceanography to archaeology, that he was using his special vessel, the Calypso, to investigate an ancient wreck and indeed had already raised a number of amphoras from a mound he had found on the ocean floor at the islet of the Grand Congloué near Marseilles. We drove to the site and arrived as he was in the midst of putting on a TV show. We had the good fortune to be invited aboard the Calypso to observe. This was back in the stone age of television, when everything that went on the air had to be live. The broadcast was to be in three languages, French, Italian, and English. Cousteau's scuba divers had carefully detached an amphora from the mound; as the cameras rolled, a diver plunged in and emerged a few moments later clutching the amphora and shouting triumphantly, "Voila, une amphore!" The cameras then stopped rolling, the amphora was surreptitiously replaced on the mound, and, with the cameras again rolling, another diver plunged in and emerged clutching the amphora and this time shouting, "Ecco, un'amphora!" The process was repeated a third time with the triumphant shout in English. The following day we were taken to a warehouse that contained a stack of several hundred amphoras that Cousteau's divers had brought up from the wreck, as well as heaps of black-glazed pottery. It was an eye-opening experience. I knew at once that I was in on the beginning of a totally new source of information about ancient maritime matters and I determined then and there to exploit it. I would put these new findings together with the evidence from all the other sources I had been collecting--ancient literature, epigraphy, papyrology, numismatics, etc.--and thereby bring the new light of maritime archaeology to bear on all that cold be gleaned from these sources. That you have awarded me this Gold Medal tells me my efforts have been worthwhile. I am immensely gratified and thankful.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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