UW Archaeology by Robert F. Marx

U/W ARCHAEOLOGY by Robert F. Marx

Underwater archaeology is a new discipline, one to which the non-professional with high motivation and a fair level of competence can contribute significantly. Throughout the world there are fewer than 50 professional underwater archaeologists; far too few for the work that must be done. In many areas there is particular urgency to excavate underwater sites threatened with destruction by man and nature. Owing to heavy beach erosion caused by hurricanes and winter storms, hundreds of miles of Florida coastline have been dredged and the spill placed on shore to replenish the beaches. In the process, hundreds, if not thousands, of shipwrecks have been obliterated forever. The sad thing is that nothing is being done to survey these areas and save these wrecks for posterity. Some of the same people upset at the thought that sport divers are exploring shipwrecks stand by while this wholesale destruction of countless shipwreck sites is being carried out. The BUARCHS (or bureaucratic archaeologists) should be labeled as criminals as they have published virtually nothing on the vast amount of treasure and artifacts from hundreds of wrecks salvaged over the past 45 years. To make matters even worse it was recently discovered that a large part of the valuable jewelry and gold specie and bullion recovered from these wrecks which the State of Florida received as their share, NO LONGER EXISTS.

I was one of the founders of the Council of Underwater Archaeology in 1958, but I soon found that it was little more than a name. Thus far, its only important contribution has been to organize a conference every year at which professional underwater archaeologists present papers. The council has yet to support a single major underwater excavation or take the first step to educate divers or amateur archaeologists, which is being done on a big scale in England and elsewhere. For years I have been trying to find a way, through the council and elsewhere, to establish a central clearing house so sport divers would have somewhere to turn for assistance when an important archaeological find is made, or for information on identifying and preserving important finds. The average diver stumbling across a shipwreck or some artifacts has no idea where to-turn for aid in determining exactly what has been found or what should be done about it. There is a critical need for such a central clearing house and I intend to present the problem before Congress in the near future.

What is underwater archaeology and what period of time can be considered of archaeological interest? These same two questions keep cropping up and firm or sensible answers never seem to be forthcoming. No two archaeologists will agree on how old a site or object must be before it can be considered of archaeological importance. Several archaeologists working in the Mediterranean feel a site has to be more than 500 years old before it is considered important. While working in Israel some years ago, I was astonished to hear several archaeologists state that a Crusader shipwreck, which I had just discovered, dating circa 1200 A.D., was of no archaeological interest and I should forget about it. If we took this attitude in the western hemisphere, we would have virtually no underwater sites of archaeological interest.

If we accept the dictionary definition of archaeology as “the study of antiquities” at face value, we have a problem because “antiquities” refers to objects from ancient times or those made before the Middle Ages. To be safe we should consider all shipwrecks and objects found in the sea to have archaeological value until proven otherwise. Actually, any find that sheds light on man’s past (how he lived, worked, traveled and interacted with others; what he constructed and how) that can’t be found in books or photographs, will have archaeological significance regardless of age.

Underwater archaeology ranges from the excavation of shipwrecks to the excavation of submerged cities, ports and ceremonial wells or cenotes (sinkholes), and includes sites once occupied by prehistoric man. Along coastlines throughout the world hundreds of former settlements and seaports lie underwater. And lakes, rivers and springs conceal sites once inhabited by man. At some underwater locations, such as the sacred cenotes of Central America, man deliberately threw in objects; at others small crafts overturned, spilling their contents accidentally. Any site bearing traces of man’s history, whether a shallow pond or the ocean depths, is of potential significance. But how are today’s sport divers able to determine what is important and what is not if the archaeologists continue to refuse to work with them and educate them?

Until recently, all information about the evolution of ancient shipping had been gleaned from interpretation of ancient literary references and iconograpy such as mosaics, frescoes, decorations of ceramic objects and coins. However, these sources furnished meager information about a vessel’s appearance, construction, means of propulsion and performance. Most ancient authors were not well versed in seafaring matters and artists sacrificed many details for decorative reasons. Thus, the only way to fill this gap in our knowledge of ancient shipping is by locating and excavating shipwrecks.

The ultimate goal of the underwater archaeologist is to find a completely intact and well-preserved shipwreck such as the 17th century warship Vasa, lost in 1628 in Stockholm Harbor. Unfortunately, the ravages of the sea make this an impossible dream in most areas, at least in the depths that can be penetrated with present diving equipment. There are some exceptions at the bottom of freshwater lakes. We recently saw a good example of these with the discovery of the Hamilton and Scourge, two 1812 American warships lying in Lake Ontario in a remarkable state of preservation—or in a few saltwater zones, such as the recent recovery of the section of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, brought up off Portsmouth, England.

The Mediterranean has become the focus for most of the professional archaeological excavation of shipwrecks. This is natural since the Mediterranean is virtually the sole repository for ancient shipping as well as the resting place for all classes of shipping from medieval through modern times. During a span of 5,500 years tens of thousands of ships were lost. Many of them, types not to be found anywhere else, contain cargoes and other materials not found on land sites. In such cases, such as several Bronze Age shipwrecks found off Turkey and Israel, articles have been recovered for which no comparative material has ever been found on land.

The cargoes of most excavated Mediterranean wrecks have been amphorae used in the wine trade. These “five-gallon Jerry Cans of antiquity” were also used to transport other liquids and such products as brined fish, olives, dried fruits and pitch. Some ships carried as many as 3,000 amphorae which many years ago were so numerous that they could be bought by tourists for $100 each. Today with so few being found they sell for $5,000 and more. A small number of wrecks carrying cargo varying from works of art to architectural components and sarcophagi have also been found and studied.

All of the nations bordering on the Mediterranean have very strict laws regarding shipwrecks and countless sport divers have ended up in jail for coming up with nothing more than a small ceramic shard. In some countries—such as Turkey and Greece—it is forbidden to even swim over a known underwater archaeological site. For those who want to explore ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean I suggest they get themselves attached as volunteer divers to approved archaeological expeditions. The Israelis use several hundred volunteer divers every summer on their various underwater projects.

Back in the 1970’s I participated in several shipwreck explorations off Israel and had a number of amusing experiences. One especially sets me to laughter every time I think about it. We were excavating a sixth century Phoenician wreck about four miles offshore using a Zodiac rubber boat as our surface base. While digging on the bottom I heard the distinct sound of a fast approaching vessel. Surfacing, I saw a destroyer closing in on us and began to frantically wave, which did no good, and with only seconds to spare I jackknifed and headed for the bottom as the vessel cut our Zodiac to pieces. Watching our clothes, cameras, extra diving tanks, food and soft drink bottles come raining down on top of us, I wish I had taken photographs of the astonished looks on the other divers when they realized what was happening. After a three hour swim ashore we found that the destroyer captain had assumed the Zodiac was being used by PLO invaders.

About ten miles north of this site, I was working just south of Tyre, Lebanon on a Roman wreck when suddenly an artillery barrage ensued between the PLO militia in Tyre and the Israeli Army. Explosions were blasting my ears and chest so I decided to HAUL ASS, to put it mildly, but before I could surface and reach my small fishing boat, the Arab fisherman took off without me and headed for safety. This time I had a five hour swim with shells exploding all around me. Needless to say that fisherman disappeared, suspecting I had venom in my heart and he could end in pieces on a shish kabob skewer.

Although the wreck of a 17th century Spanish galleon is likely to arouse less academic interest than the remains of an ancient Greek or Phoenician merchantman, it is nevertheless certain that New World shipwrecks will eventually receive their due share of attention when more trained people are available to work on them. Certainly, to an American historian, one of Columbus’ wrecks is as important as a Roman galley; perhaps more so.