Don Frey, left, and Yasar Yildiz are true pioneers of underwater archaeology. They are standing in front of the Uluburun shipwreck exhibit at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Turkey. Photo by Chris Sloan.
Shipwrecks have been popular at National Geographic magazine for decades. One of our most famous coverages was the Uluburun shipwreck off the coast of Turkey. That wreck site was excavated over a decade in the 1980s and 1990s by George Bass, who many consider as the father of underwater archaeology. Understanding the difference between Bass's concept of underwater archaeology and treasure hunting is important for anyone concerned about preserving the past.
Recently I have had the pleasure of meeting many underwater archaeologists, many of whom would not be doing what they are doing if it were not for Bass. On a recent trip to Turkey I visited two sites where some of these archaeologists are hard at work.
At Yenikapi in Istanbul I met Cemal Pulak and Sheila Matthews, both of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, founded by George Bass. Yenikapi is the name of a historic neighborhood in Istanbul, but it is now synonymous with an archaeological site that is perhaps the largest active archaeological dig in the world. Excavations for a major transportation hub in the city revealed the remains of a Byzantine harbor. More than 30 boats from that period have now been found. Pulak, Matthews, and their crew of grad students are meticulously excavating a few of these wrecks. The Istanbul Archaeology Museum has overall responsibility for the project and various universities are deeply involved in excavating and conserving the majority of the boats. Thanks to Bass and his colleagues, methods for proper excavation and conservation of waterlogged boats have been identified and the massive project is proceeding as rapidly as possible under the patient (but for how long?) eyes of construction supervisors.
Pulak, far right, and Matthews show me a detailed drawing of a Byzantine boat they are excavating. Every board of the boat, including every nail hole, is illustrated at 100% scale. Photo courtesy of Aydin Kudu.
A short plane hop south from Istanbul brings one to the coastal town of Bodrum. The place reeks of history, sun, and seafood. In the center of the harbor is a crusader castle built from the stones of one of the seven wonders of the world, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. Now the castle is the home of the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Its current director is Yasar Yildiz, another associate of George Bass's who proudly displays the pictures he took, or the pictures he is in, from National Geographic stories about Turkish shipwrecks.
Bass left other legacies at Bodrum. There is a branch of the Institute for Nautical Archaeology there, perched neatly in the hills on the outskirts (ie; five minutes to the harbor) of town. There, another amazing individual, Tuba Ekmekci presides as the director. This is no outpost, however. It is a beautiful headquarters away from headquarters with big windows, clean offices, and manicured gardens. It has a world class conservation facility in its bowels, and some of Ekmekci's most recent activity concerns preparing the water-logged beams and boards from the Yenikapi harbor boats for the long preservation process. It takes years for polyethylene glycol to replace the water in the cells of the wood. But the result is wood that will last another 400 years. In the end, some of these boats will be reconstructed for public display.
And that is what it is all about, in my opinion. Furthering knowledge and public education. That's the nut of the difference between underwater archaeology and treasure hunting. What George Bass and other underwater archaeologists have shown is that through meticulous excavation there is a tremendous amount to be learned. If an archaeological excavation is rushed, information will be lost. It is as simple as that.
The Yenikapi harbor excavation is an example of the dilemma facing archaeologists, city planners, and the public in many places. There is clearly a need for improvements in public transportation, but there is also a need for preserving cultural heritage. In cities all over the world, people are struggling to find the balance. Yenikapi, however, is shipwreck archaeology in the middle of a city. Most other shipwreck sites, I would argue, aren't under the same pressure. Why then, do we tolerate anything less than the Bass approach to underwater archaeology?
UNESCO has presented the countries of the world with a "UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage." Only 17 countries have ratified the convention so far. It seems high time to recognize that shipwrecks are the cultural heritage of the world and should be treated as a cultural treasure deserving of the Bass approach, not a treasure to be looted.
On a final note I will share with you a wonderful photo by Don Frey, the fellow on the left in the picture at the top of this post. Don was a physicist before he met George Bass and was seduced by underwater archaeology. He designed measuring and recording equipment for divers and excelled in underwater photography and filming. He was the president of INA from 1982 to 1988. In this photo he captures the impressive balloon lift of a block of stone from a ship that was carrying enormous Roman column sections (foreground). It is currently being being excavated by INA's and Texas A&M's Deborah Carlson, a National Geographic Society grantee. Photo courtesy of Don Frey/INA.