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Conversations: Finding Artifacts is Not Archaeology Volume 56 Number 4, July/August 2003

An underwater pioneer reflects on his past and looks to the future.

(Feyyaz Subay)

As a pioneer in the field of underwater archaeology, George F. Bass has spent more than four decades conducting research across the world. A cofounder of the Institute for Nautical Archaeology (INA) and professor emeritus at the nautical archaeology program at Texas A&M University, Bass is the recipient of the National Medal of Science and the Archaeological Institute of America's gold medal, and is a National Geographic Society Centennial Awardee. Recently retired, the man often heralded as the "father of underwater archaeology" talked to ARCHAEOLOGY about the future of the field.

Where is underwater archaeology heading?

As an academic discipline it's growing, with good national programs expanding around the world. I still look forward to the day when all archaeology students simply learn about watercraft as a normal part of their studies. Almost 40 years ago I asked why we speak of underwater archaeologists and not desert archaeologists, jungle archaeologists, and mountain archaeologists. We may use different field techniques, but technique is not what archaeology is all about.

Are we going to see more remotely operated excavations of deep-water wrecks?

Such excavations will take place and are exciting, but the majority of ships sank because they hit land, and shallower wrecks carry the same archaeological and historical information as deep ones. It's more cost effective to get the same information from shallower wrecks. I believe new archaeological information around the world will continue to come mostly from sites hundreds, rather than thousands, of feet deep.

Are archaeologists and salvors or treasure hunters ever going to find any common ground?

They can find no more common ground than archaeologists and tomb robbers. Their aims are too different. We spent twenty years conserving an eleventh-century shipwreck in Turkey, and are spending additional years publishing it in three large volumes. Would investors in a treasure hunt wait for two or three decades to be rewarded? At INA, we spend on average two years on conservation and library research for every month we dive. Raising artifacts is the easiest and least expensive part of our work.

What technological advancements, if any, radically reshaped the process of underwater archaeology in the twentieth century? What developing technology will reshape that process in the twenty-first century?

The major technological advance was simply the development of scuba. Sonar, magnetometers, and small submersibles have aided in the discovery of underwater sites, and digital cameras and computers have speeded site mapping. The flexible, extreme-depth diving suit, now being developed in Canada, will enable archaeologists to work hundreds of feet down for hours at a time. Sonar with photographic resolution should allow us to finally distinguish wrecks from rocks, and a good dendrochronological [tree-ring dating] sequence going back thousands of years will one day allow us to date wrecks with greater accuracy.

What has been your most exciting discovery?

Few people may believe this, but my most exciting discoveries have all come in the library, long after the diving was over. It was perhaps half a year after the conclusion of the Cape Gelidonya excavation before I had the first inkling that we had excavated a Near Eastern rather than a Mycenaean ship. The notion first came to me when I was studying the ancient merchant's pan-balance weights, which proved to be based on Near Eastern weight standards. This led to further library research that later rewrote part of Bronze Age history. I could repeat this story many times. Finding artifacts is not archaeology.

Your biggest regret?

My greatest regret is that the work that led to any honors I received took me away too often and for too long from my family.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America