A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Few historical site excavations during the past 50 years have been as important as that at Port Royal, Jamaica, the richest English colony in the New World when it sank beneath the waves during an earthquake in 1692. They revealed houses, inns, and shops, their contents perfectly preserved in ten to 30 feet of water.
Few if any Bronze Age excavations in the past 50 years have been more important than that of the Uluburun shipwreck that lay 145 to 200 feet deep just off the Turkish coast, with its 18,000 artifacts from nearly a dozen different cultures, precisely dated to within a few years of 1300 B.C. Discovered in 1982, the wreck's unique finds include the earliest ingots of tin and glass, the oldest wooden writing tablet, the first gold scarab of Egypt's Queen Nefertiti ever found, a startling collection of Canaanite jewelry, and the oldest seagoing hull. The wreck has provided a wealth of information on the histories of literacy, trade, ideas, metallurgy, metrology, art, music, religion, and international relations, as well as for fields as diverse as Homeric studies and Egyptology.
Another exceptional underwater excavation, that of the Serçe Liman1 wreck off the coast of Turkey, yielded the world's largest collections of medieval Islamic glass (10,000 to 20,000 vessels) and Byzantine tools and weapons, dated almost exactly to the year 1025. The glazed bowls, glass and copper vessels, and jewelry from the wreck, excavated between 1977 and 1979, have, according to one scholar, "revolutionized the history of Islamic art."
Of equal archaeological importance are the stunning fifth-century B.C. bronze warriors discovered in 1972 near Riace in southern Italy; Henry VIII's Mary Rose, raised from the waters off Portsmouth in 1982; and the Swedish Vasa, raised from Stockholm Harbor in 1961. The warships Mary Rose and Vasa have vividly revealed details of daily life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
With the archaeological value of shipwrecks so well established, it is puzzling that their study is not yet a routine part of the preparation for a career in archaeology. Ships are not included in the dozens of handbooks published on classical archaeology. Were ships any less important to ancient Greeks and Romans than their temples, sculptures, pottery, and coins? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that until Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emil Gagnan invented the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba) in 1943, the notion of applying the rigors of a land excavation to sites underwater was out of the question.
Incredible historical resources lie in relatively shallow water, as well preserved and significant as that smaller percentage of ships found at greater depths. They wait for marine archaeology to become as common as archaeology on land, for it is not only in advanced technology that the future of underwater archaeology rests. The future rests in the recognition of nautical archaeology as an academic discipline and its full appreciation as an integral part of archaeology. And this, in turn, will lead to the discovery and excavation of the ships of the Minoans, pharaohs, Iron Age Greeks, Kublai Khan, the Crusaders, and Christopher Columbus, whose vessels lie waiting at the bottom of the sea.
George F. Bass is George T. and Gladys H. Abell Distinguished Professor of Nautical Archaeology and George O. Yamini Family Professor of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University, and president of the affiliated Institute of Nautical Archaeology.
In 1946 a fleet converged on Bikini Atoll in the south Pacific. Among the vessels were U.S. Navy ships like the battleship Arkansas and aircraft carrier Saratoga, declared surplus or obsolete after the war, as well as captured enemy ships such as the German cruiser Prinz Eugen and the Japanese battleship Nagato. The fleet was gathered for Operation Crossroads, in which the Navy hoped to show that its vessels could survive a nuclear attack; the results proved otherwise. Two bombs were detonated, one dropped on the fleet from a B-29 on July 1, the second exploded beneath it on July 25. Ships closest to the bombs were destroyed almost instantaneously. In the second test, a landing ship directly above the bomb was vaporized, and the nearby Arkansas sank less than one second after the blast. Of the 97 vessels, 22 were sunk outright. The 73 that remained afloat, such as the battleship New York, were hopelessly irradiated. Many were later used for target practice and sunk in the Pacific. In 1989 and 1990, I participated in a survey of the vessels at Bikini undertaken by the National Park Service.
James P. Delgado is director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum in Vancouver, British Columbia. His recollections of diving on the ships of Operation Crossroads were adapted from his book Ghost Fleet: The Sunken Ships of Bikini Atoll (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1997).