Fifty years of shipwreck excavation opens new windows on history

By Fabio Esteban Amador - Natgeo Newswatch

2010 marks the 50th anniversary of George Bass's first-ever submarine mapping and excavation of a complete shipwreck and the dawn of modern underwater archaeology.

Transoceanic explorers throughout time have traveled in relatively fragile vessels, often carrying their personal belongings, items that reflect who they are and where they are from.

Their ships transported resources, tools, knowledge and technologies. They traveled near and far, reaching across the blue horizon, discovering new lands, claiming natural wonders and even civilizations.

Our ancestors viewed the oceans as the means to reach the unknown and all its fortunes, but the oceans were not always easily traveled and from time to time they unleashed their temper on the vessels and maritime peoples who suffered its plunder.

So, if our planet is mostly covered by the oceans then the oceans may hold thousands of sites, artifacts, ships, and histories of peoples and civilizations that had a unique interaction and relation to the sea.

This potential archaeology was inaccessible for a long time and beyond anyone's imagination. However, it was just a matter of time before a unique and inspiring individual came along and began the age of underwater archaeology.

George Bass, a University of Pennsylvania archaeology graduate student, was asked in 1960 if he would be interested in studying a Late Bronze Age shipwreck off the coast of Turkey. "I had never dived except once in a YMCA swimming pool before leaving for Turkey in 1960," George explains. His desire to explore and document the ocean's floor became the foundation for what now is the field of underwater and maritime archaeology.

Dating to over 3,000 years old, the first shipwreck studied by George Bass was at the time the oldest ship ever found. His research at Cape Gelidonya would be like none that came before - it would literally change our notions of archaeology and the ocean forever.


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