Volume 59 Number 3, May/June 2006
by Dan Lenihan
Unlike most coffee-table books, Beneath the Seven Seas deserves to be read, not just thumbed through. More than two dozen researchers from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) tell the story of the institute's 30-plus years of underwater archaeological research--not "warts and all" but close enough for an academic work. Over the decades they have helped bring respectability to the protection of our submerged cultural heritage. That's no small thing in a world where noteworthy historical shipwrecks are often found by treasure hunters who sell themselves as preservationists and their artifacts at Christie's auction house.
George Bass, one of INA's founders and the book's editor, obviously encouraged INA members to tell their adventures in a manner accessible to nonarchaeologists, making the book more engaging than most. The opening to Filipe Castro's section describing the Pepper Wreck (March/April 2003), which sank off Portugal "in full view of wives and children," is a case in point. Archaeology is about what the artifacts can tell us about people, and it is nice to see science driven by a desire to understand "how the ship offered a living environment for an enormous crowd of sailors, soldiers...and adventurers," and to read Joseph Conrad's description of these large ocean-going ships as "dark wandering places."
Margaret Leshikar-Denton's discussion of the wreck of the Ten Sail on Grand Cayman addresses the social-science and cultural-resource value of the sites. That is usually not the strongest suit of INA, which is historical rather than anthropological in its orientation and rarely dabbles in resource management. Her attention to the preservation needs of these sites is a welcome addition. The other authors highlight a diverse spectrum of sites, from a Bronze Age shipwreck to the sunken city of Port Royal to twentieth-century vessels.
Some aspects of the presentation grate a bit, but that is the opinion of a professional underwater archaeologist. We tend to be intolerant of our colleagues and happily eat our young. But consider Bass's reflections on the place of the Cape Gelidonya wreck in the history of underwater archaeology. Although torn by doubt, he reckons this site in Turkey is less important to him as "the first ancient wreck excavated in its entirety on the sea bed" than how "its excavation rewrote a significant part of the history of the Bronze Age." No shrinking violet he.
Actually, the complete excavation of shipwrecks is not something to brag about. Sites excavated are now completely gone from the archaeological record.
Bass shows his irritation at being snubbed by the anthropological community early on. People in subdisciplines of archaeology often have a deep neurosis when it comes to science: "theory envy" as Henry Glassie once called it. Underwater archaeology was once laughed at by terrestrial archaeologists, at least until serious scholars like Bass started getting more money and support for their sites than the mud sloggers.
At many points in the book, Bass is insightful and conveys wisdom rather than bravado. He was among the first to bring together archaeologists, students, divers, and illustrators to study shipwrecks and meaningfully engage with a skeptical public about their value beyond treasure. INA's contributions to underwater archaeology give Beneath the Seven Seas the substance, as well as the beautiful pictures, that will likely earn my copy a few coffee stains.
Dan Lenihan is the former chief of the National Park Service's Submerged Cultural Resources Unit and author of Submerged: Adventures of America's Most Elite Underwater Archaeology Team.
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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America