Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

APRIL 1997




The founder of nautical archaeology has brought scientific precision to the practice of "digging up" ancient shipwrecks.

H U M A N I T I E S    A N D    T H E    A R T S

The Underwater World of
George Bass

By Dale Keiger
Photos courtesy George Bass and
The Institute for Nautical Archaeology

GEORGE BASS (MA '55) IS A WELL-EDUCATED MAN. But he has a wry appreciation for the role ignorance has played in his career. In 1959, the University of Pennsylvania asked if he wanted to direct the excavation of a Bronze Age ship that had been discovered in 90 feet of water off the coast of Turkey. Twenty-six years old and a doctoral candidate at Penn in archaeology, Bass didn't know that, according to the top people in the discipline, true archaeology--with precise mapping, painstaking excavation, and meticulous cataloging of artifacts-- was impossible underwater. He didn't know that many of the techniques employed on a standard dig would have to be reinvented for work beneath the sea. Hell, he didn't even know how to dive.

He did know that "digging up" a shipwreck sounded like a diverting way to spend a summer, so he said yes, arranged for some diving lessons at a nearby YMCA, married his fiance, and in the summer of 1960 headed for Turkey. What he didn't know how to do, he'd figure out.

Over the ensuing 37 years, Bass has figured out enough to be regarded as the founder of nautical archaeology, the systematic scientific excavation of ancient shipwrecks. He and his colleagues at the Institute for Nautical Archaeology (INA), which he also founded, have written the manual on how to do archaeological science underwater. He has helped excavate the world's oldest known shipwreck, off Uluburun, Turkey, and challenged long-held beliefs about Bronze Age merchant seafaring. His research teams have recovered the world's largest collection of Islamic Fatimid glass, the world's oldest seagoing hull, the earliest known wooden writing tablet, the earliest known glass and tin ingots, and a royal gold scarab inscribed for Queen Nefertiti--the first ever found. They have developed techniques for underwater stereo photo mapping, improved casting of replica metal artifacts, accurate acoustic mapping, and underwater decompression. In 1988, the National Geographic Society presented Bass with its Centennial Award, recognizing him as one of the 20th century's great explorers. Among those honored with him were Jane Goodall, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and Sir Edmund Hillary.

Divers raise 7th-century amphorae, the shipping containers of the ancient Mediterranean.
When Bass began his first underwater excavation, scholars firmly believed that Mycenaeans--the Bronze Age Greeks--had the monopoly on Mediterranean merchant seafaring circa 1400 to 1200 B.C.E. Bass has assembled evidence that contradicts this accepted wisdom. He and his INA colleagues have excavated two Bronze Age ships--the Uluburun wreck and another at Cape Gelidonya--that are most likely Canaanite. The Canaanites were Bronze Age Phoenicians, and archaeologists had long assumed that the Phoenicians didn't become seafarers until roughly 800 B.C.E. or later. If Bass has correctly interpreted his findings, Phoenician traders were plying the Mediterranean at least 400 years earlier than anyone had suspected. What's more, he has correlated descriptions of shipbuilding and seafaring in The Iliad and The Odyssey with what he has recovered from the sea bottom. Based on this evidence, he believes that Homer (or whoever) composed his epics centuries earlier than commonly believed.

His arguments are not universally accepted among archaeologists. He sometimes betrays annoyance at this, especially when he comes across statements in archaeological journals that, he feels, misrepresent his work or betray scant familiarity with the actual findings of INA archaeologists. A few classically trained scientists still seem to regard him as merely some sort of skin diver. Nevertheless, he says, "I'm proud that I have played such a role in the founding of a new branch of archaeology. And of rewriting history, just a little bit."

BASS LEANS BACK IN HIS INA OFFICE, on the campus of Texas A&M University, and says, "I honestly can't help but think I was fated to do what I do." The artifacts he has pulled from the ocean floor all reside in a museum at Bodrum, Turkey, so most of the mementos in his office are framed photographs. There's a picture of the INA's facility in Bodrum, near where Bass and his wife, Ann, own a house. There are photos of Bass in scuba gear. Shots of him and Ann and their two sons, Alan and Gordon, on a sailing ship. Several large certificates commemorate prestigious lectures Bass has delivered at various universities. There is one artifact that sits on a bookshelf--a thick, round piece of cracked window glass from a two-person submarine, the Asherah. The INA used to own the sub. The crack came during Bass's first excursion in it, when he had an unplanned encounter with some rocks.

INA researchers use submarines in their work--and have even custom designed ones. Here, Bass climbs into a one-man vessel, the Remora.
Bass looks considerably younger than his 65 years. His face is relatively smooth and he's kept himself pretty trim. He watches his diet and takes brisk walks every day. He sometimes sounds wistful when he speaks of no longer being able to do as much on a dive site as when he was younger--he talks sometimes of the old days, how when a cable fouled he was first over the side to wrestle it back into place. But he plans to dive on a wreck this coming summer for the first time in 12 years, and he's animated when he talks about it.

He's amiable and patient with questions, but he's careful, too. Archaeology is rife with nationalism and politics. Bass doesn't want to compromise the future of the INA or its grad students by a careless remark that offends the Turks, the Greeks, or anyone else. For decades he has scribbled away at a novel about a scuba-diving archaeologist who finds a revelatory holy tablet, and he muses about someday writing an insider's account of his profession--to be published posthumously.

Bass's fascination with archaeology and diving started early. His earliest childhood drawings were of divers. He collected books on diving, though he says, "I never dreamed I would dive myself. I just loved reading about it." He and his brother planned to build a submarine out of boards, and they once devised a diving helmet, which fortunately they never got to try out. His uncle, Robert Wauchope, was an archaeologist. "He would come back from the jungles of Guatemala all tanned and handsome and telling all these stories," Bass recalls.

When he came to Hopkins in 1950, Bass enrolled as an English major, but soon gravitated toward archaeology, and switched his major after a sophomore year in England. He skipped a bachelor's degree and earned his master's in 1955.

At Cape Gelidonya in 1960, Bass first demonstrated the archaeologists could excavate a shipwreck with the same scientific rigor as their counterparts working on land. Researchers camped on the narrow, fly-infested beach at right.
The year before, a Turkish sponge diver named Kemal Aras had discovered a concentration of metal that indicated a shipwreck, on the sea bottom near Cape Gelidonya on the Turkish coast. Aras later described it to an American photographer and adventurer named Peter Throckmorton, who was cataloging ancient wrecks along the Turkish coast, and who believed something that no one else did--that divers could excavate a shipwreck with the same scientific rigor as archaeologists working on land. He pinpointed the wreck's location in 1959, and approached Penn with a proposal to excavate it. Penn's University Museum took on the project, and sent Bass to the wreck the following summer: "Here I am, sent out from Penn, never having dived before, and because the excavation permit is in Penn's name, I'm the director." That didn't always sit well with Throckmorton, who had dreamed up the project and felt a sense of ownership. "It's how it works," Bass recalls. "The archaeologists always end up pushing aside the finders. In general we got along well, but at times we fought like cats and dogs." Nevertheless, before he died, Throckmorton willed his library to the INA.

The team of Turkish, French, and American researchers and divers established a rough-and-ready camp on the narrow beach at Gelidonya. The site swarmed with flies and was unbearably hot. A steady stream of rocks cascaded from the overhanging cliffs. One day, a female grad student returned to camp and found a boulder sitting where she usually slept; had she been stretched out in her accustomed position, the rock would have landed on her head. Team members lived under canvas awnings, on mattresses scrounged from army surplus. When Ann Bass, who had never been outside the States, joined her new husband early in the summer, French diver Claude Duthuit graciously gave them his private tent--what passed for luxury accommodations--as a honeymoon suite.

The team survived at first on little more than tomatoes and cucumbers, until they could make better arrangements for provisions; some mornings there was nothing to eat. Expedition members lost an average of 30 pounds over the summer due to insufficient nutrition. Cuts and scrapes festered, heat peeled the emulsion from photographic film, and meat quickly spoiled, even after it was cooked. But as Bass remembers it, no one minded the austere conditions. "You just got used to it," he says. "The work was exciting." Says his wife, "A lot of people who have seen the beach have said they don't understand why I just didn't pick up and leave. Yes, the conditions were tough. But there was a real sense that this was something new. I got caught up in that."

The team engaged a small sponge trawler, the Lufti Gelil, as its diving boat, and began surveying the wreck site, making meticulous measurements and executing detailed drawings of all that was strewn across the bottom of the Mediterranean. To avoid the dangerous condition known as "the bends," divers could only go down twice a day for short periods. Nevertheless, they made steady progress, proving that Throckmorton had been right-- archaeologists could scientifically excavate a shipwreck.

The ship turned out to be a modest merchant vessel, made of wood held together by mortise-and-tenon joints. Some of the wreck's cargo was still stacked as it had been in the ship's hold. Among the more intriguing finds were 34 distinctive four-handled ingots of copper, commonly called ox-hide ingots because in shape they resembled a stretched, dried hide. There was also an extensive set of 60 stone balance-pan weights, used by merchants to measure quantities of goods.

These weights led Bass to question, for the first time, conventional theories about who had sailed the Mediterranean during the middle to late Bronze Age. Artifacts indicated that the ship had gone down in 1200 B.C.E., give or take 50 years. Archaeologists believed that the seafarers of this time all were Mycenaean, and Bass and his team had assumed at the outset that they were excavating a Mycenaean ship. But the pan weights were in sets that corresponded to measures used by Egyptians, Syrians, and Hebrews, not Mycenaeans. Furthermore, none of the recovered personal effects of the ship's crew were Mycenaean. Four scarabs, an oil lamp, stone mortars, and a merchant's cylinder seal all were Canaanite or from cities close to Canaan; a razor was probably Egyptian. Says Bass, "Why does a Mycenaean ship have nothing but Near Eastern weights? Why were the personal effects all Near Eastern? All of this pointed to the fact that whoever sailed this ship was Canaanite."

Nicolle Hirschfeld maps the position of an Uluburun pithos, or storage jar. The divers meticulously chart the position of every object found at a wreck.
Bass suspected that the ship had been hauling raw materials to and from Cyprus, Canaan (roughly present-day western Syria), Egypt, and Mycenaean Greece. He recalled seeing similarly shaped copper ingots in Egyptian tomb paintings. When the summer diving season ended, he and Ann headed for the Penn museum library. They each started at one end of a bookcase, combing every book and journal on Egyptian art. They turned up 16 reliefs and tomb-paintings that portrayed Bronze Age workers hauling ingots that were shaped like those found under the sea at Cape Gelidonya. More to the point, various Egyptian references identified the ingots in almost every instance as tribute to the pharaoh from Canaan, and one painting clearly showed the ingots coming from a Canaanite, not a Mycenaean, ship. Not one painting portrayed a Mycenaean vessel. If the Greeks really had a monopoly on Mediterranean seafaring trade, why didn't their vessels show up in the Egyptian paintings from this period?

Proponents of the Mycenaean monopoly had based their argument in large part on the fact that Mycenaean pottery has been found at land excavations everywhere in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. If other cultures were seafarers, why didn't their goods turn up? "I got a D in political economy at Hopkins," Bass says, "but still I knew the Mycenaean theory was full of holes. Were the Mycenaeans just handing out pottery as free samples? No! Something was coming back." Bass suspected that the copper ingots found on the wreck were an example of return cargo. They'd seldom been found at a Bronze Age dig, he believed, because soon after they arrived in various ports, they were turned into bronze tools and weapons by local metalsmiths. Bass had found a Canaanite cargo, if the Egyptian paintings were accurate, and Canaanite personal effects. To him, that meant a Canaanite merchant ship was sailing the eastern Mediterranean trading routes hundreds of years earlier than previously suspected. Twenty-four years later, the relics of another wreck would bolster his argument.

Bass (left) examines kitchen artifacts brought up from the galley of a 4th-century Roman ship, one of three wrecks lying together on the sea floor near Yassiada, Turkey.
AFTER THAT FIRST SUMMER, Bass had no intention of doing another shipwreck. But members of his Gelidonya team saw the potential in this new type of archaeology and talked him into returning to Turkey the next year, to excavate a Byzantine wreck at Yassiada. Soon he was hooked on underwater work. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the findings from Cape Gelidonya. He excavated another wreck at Yassiada, a late Roman ship that had gone down in nearly the same place as the Byzantine wreck. He and his team developed new techniques, like a mobile photography stand that traveled on a metal grid anchored to the sea bottom. They invented a "telephone booth," a submerged plastic dome that contained air pumped from the surface and a phone; divers could enter the dome, remove their masks, and speak to someone on the dive boat. They developed a four-person underwater decompression unit that made the wait much more comfortable. Divers could relax, read, and talk in relative comfort while they decompressed; they even played a form of soccer they called idiotball. Before they had the chamber, divers would decompress by simply ascending partway to the surface and hanging from a rope for 40 minutes. In 1963, they commissioned the building of the Asherah, and used it to develop a new system of three-dimensional photographic mapping. They were first to use side-scanning sonar to locate a shipwreck.

There was no end of fascinating puzzles. "People ask me what's the most fabulous discovery I've ever made," Bass says. "And I always say it's been in the library. The big discoveries are always in the library, or in the conservation labs." As an example, he describes some spindle whorls found on an 11th-century wreck at Ser¨e Limani. A spindle whorl is a small flywheel used in spinning thread. Whenever they turn up in land digs, they're classified as "feminine objects." When Bass found them on the wreck, he wondered if that meant a woman had been on board the ship. But he noticed that the whorls had been discovered in the same area as a set of weights used on fishing nets, and some needles. He says, "Were men spinning threads to repair nets? Did men spin?"

Bass headed for the library. He found a written account, dated within two centuries of the wreck, that said the spinning of flax was women's work, but that it was permissible for a man to spin using wool or goat's hair. Bass took hairs that had been caught in the sinker weights from the shipwreck and sent them to a lab in Southampton, England. The lab said the hairs had come from a goat. Bass then talked to an 85-year-old Turkish fisherman he'd met, and asked him about the best materials for repairing nets. "He told me that women's hair was best, but hard to get. Next was goat's hair, because it didn't absorb water like wool." Bass stops short of calling what he found proof that men spun thread aboard the ship, but he suspects that's the case. "This is the sort of thing I love to do," he says.

Divers found more than a ton of broken glass and glassworks factory waste on an 11th-century wreck at Serce Limani.
IN 1969, BASS WATCHED A MAN DIE. The excavation team always made its decompression chamber available for any Turkish sponge diver who needed emergency treatment. One night, a boat brought in a man badly stricken with the bends. He had not properly decompressed, and nitrogen was literally bubbling in his tissues, cutting off oxygen flow. Bass and others in his crew spent time in the chamber with the victim, trying to be of some help or solace. The man, who also had a bad peptic ulcer, died in agony, calling for his mother. Earlier that season, team member Eric Ryan had suffered a severe embolism on a dive. A shaken Bass decided that after nearly 10 years of diving, he'd had enough.

"I'd never seen a dead person," he says. "This fisherman died in our chamber. I didn't want to pull another dead person, one of our people, out of the water."

Bass took a sabbatical, then worked on a terrestrial dig in Italy. But he wasn't satisfied. He missed finding intact objects; on a land dig, all you find, usually, are fragments. He missed the camaraderie of the dive crews, and the range of interests and experience. A land dig employed mostly archaeologists. On the sea excavations, Bass had enjoyed the company of photographers, art historians, mechanics, architects, and divers.

A gold medallion from Uluburun.
He decided to return to underwater work, but on a different professional basis. In archaeological circles, his work, and that of his colleagues, was encountering resistance, in some cases derision. Bass had trouble publishing some of his findings in archaeology journals. A leading classical archaeologist, whom Bass diplomatically declines to name, spoke to him of that "silly business you do under water." One of Bass's colleagues was dismissed from a job interview because the opening was for a historian, "not a skin diver." The not-so-subtle message was that real scholars dig on land, not under the sea.

To promote nautical archaeology and develop the discipline, Bass in 1973 founded the INA, the first institute of its kind anywhere in the world. He wanted to establish it at Penn, but says that he couldn't agree with the university on how it would be administered. Three years later, INA affiliated with Texas A&M, where it has prospered.

Bass returned to the water, and in 1984, he and his INA colleagues hit the mother lode.

TWO YEARS BEFORE THAT, a sponge diver named Mehmet Cakir had told his captain that he had seen "metal biscuits with ears" on the sea bottom near Uluburun. INA scientists had been training Turkish captains and divers on what to be alert for, and the captain recognized his diver's description as fitting that of an ancient ingot. He reported the find to the Museum of Underwater Archaeology, at Bodrum, where INA maintained its Turkish base.

In June 1984, Bass went down to look at the wreck for the first time. What he saw stunned him. Debris lay on a steep slope 140 to 170 feet down. He knew from the preliminary survey dives that the ship had to be from the 14th or 13th century B.C.E., making it the world's oldest known shipwreck. (Divers have found older scatterings of pottery, but can't be sure they represent shipwrecks.) Stuff was strewn everywhere. As he stood on the sea bottom 150 feet down, Bass could see rows of copper ingots, more than he'd ever seen. Dozens of Canaanite amphorae lay in the blue distance. Bass surfaced and told his colleagues, "We're looking at an archaeologist's dream."

Supported by the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, and several other organizations, Bass and his crew began 11 summers of excavation at the site. The technical problems were significant. No one had ever excavated a ship at such depths, down to 200 feet. Diving day after day for weeks, the crew couldn't afford supplies of heliox, the helium-oxygen mix favored by divers working that deep. INA's divers had to breathe simple compressed air, which meant they were subject to nitrogen narcosis. At such depths, nitrogen collects in a diver's system and impairs judgment. Bass likens the effect to downing four martinis and then rolling off the boat. The divers had to learn to concentrate through their growing mental fog as they worked up to 20-minute shifts.

The divers soon realized they had ingots in unprecedented quantities, and not just copper. They found pure tin ingots, again in enormous quantity. "Nobody had ever found a single tin ingot on land," Bass says. "Now we had a ton of them." They turned up cobalt blue and turquoise disks, each about six inches across. These turned out to be ingots of glass, the first ever found.

Robin Piercy, a researcher working on the bottom, one day fanned sand away with his hand and noticed a glint. He went to the "phone booth" and alerted the ship that something was up. When he came to the surface, he paused part way up the ladder and said, "I've never seen gold like that underwater. Never, ever."

Piercy had found a gold chalice. To an archaeologist, a single piece of ancient clay or tin can prove far more valuable than a ship full of gold. Nevertheless, on a public television program that documented the first summer at Uluburun, you can see Bass's face light up as he leans over the boat and hears Piercy's news. The team already knew it had at least six tons of copper ingots. Bass looked at the growing inventory and told his colleagues, "This is no tramp steamer we're dealing with."

The team kept excavating and eventually found 10 tons of copper, one ton of tin (significantly, the copper-to-tin ratio for bronze is 10-to-1), 150 glass ingots, a ton of terebinth resin (which may have been used in incense), ivory in the form of hippopotamus teeth and sections of elephant tusk, and more gold. They found logs of African blackwood, called ebony by ancient Egyptians, the type of wood used to make furniture found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. They uncovered a solid gold scarab; on examination, it proved to be the first ever found bearing the likeness of Nefertiti, and the first artifact ever found in Asia Minor bearing her name and that of her husband, the pharaoh Akhenaten. A dagger turned out to match one found at a Canaanite site in south Palestine.

Sifting through mud that had filled a huge storage vessel, Cemal Pulak, then one of Bass's grad students, found fragments of wood and pieces of ivory. He pieced them together and discovered that they formed a diptych, a sort of ancient writing tablet that consisted of two wooden leaves hinged together with ivory. The leaves would have been coated with beeswax that then could be inscribed with a stylus. No one had ever before found a diptych so old.

During 11 summers, INA divers made 22,413 dives to the Uluburun wreck. By use of tree-ring dating known as dendrochronology, researchers examined firewood from the ship and came up with an estimated date of its sinking: 1316 B.C.E. Robert Brill of the Corning Museum of Glass has analyzed the glass ingots and found they matched the glass used in Egyptian bottles from the 18th Dynasty, and in Mycenaean beads, indicating the wide dispersal through trade of this raw material.

Bass can't be certain of the ship's nationality, at least not yet, but he believes the strongest evidence is that, like the Gelidonya wreck, it's of Near Eastern, not Mycenaean, origin. He has become convinced that it was carrying a royal shipment of raw materials, part of the exchange of gifts and tribute that cemented diplomatic relations in the Bronze Age. Through his library research, he has found in the 14th century B.C.E. Amarna tablets [see Johns Hopkins Magazine, February 1997] references to royal shipments that closely resemble the Uluburun cargo. One tablet, a letter to an Egyptian pharaoh, reads, "I will bring thee as a present 200 talents of copper." Two hundred talents is almost precisely the weight of the copper ingots found on the Uluburun wreck. Bass doubts that his ship carried the actual cargo described in the Amarna letter, but he loves the idea.

He also has noted how many of INA's findings corroborate details in The Iliad and The Odyssey. In the latter, Odysseus builds a ship, and Homer's description of the construction closely matches what Pulak has determined about the structure of the Uluburun wreck. For decades, scholars had puzzled over a reference in Homer to brushwood. Bass and his divers found brushwood used as dunnage--packing material--on the Gelidonya and Uluburun ships.

Scholars have dated Homer's writings to the 8th century B.C.E., mostly because of his references to Phoenician seafarers, whom they thought didn't exist until that time. They assumed that Homer's accounts of life in the heroic Bronze Age, centuries earlier, were based on stories passed from generation to generation. Bass is not so sure. If, as he strongly believes, the Gelidonya and Uluburun wrecks prove that Phoenician seafarers plied the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age, then there's no longer a discontinuity between Homer's accounts of 12th-century B.C.E. Greek heroes and his references to Phoenician sailors. Bass isn't prepared yet to say when the Homeric epics were composed, but the major arguments for the 8th-century B.C.E. date are no longer valid.

The Islamic "glass wreck" yielded enough timbers to allow researchers to construct the ship's hull. Like all the artifacts excavated off the Turkish coast, the hull resides at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Turkey.
AFTER 37 YEARS, Bass is proud of the extent to which he's been able to establish nautical archaeology as legitimate science. He and his colleagues find that some people confuse them with treasure hunters, and they still encounter prejudice from old-school classical archaeologists, but he says, "I think we have won the day." There are 50 grad students working now at Texas A&M, and Bass says the program has been placing its graduates at top-rank institutions.

When asked about the price of his success, Bass answers with no hesitation: "I wonder if to be successful demands a certain sort of selfishness. The work becomes all absorbing. I have virtually no life outside of what I do." He acknowledges how little time he spent with his family as he built his career. "It's outrageous that when my first son was three months old, I packed up and went to Turkey, leaving Ann holding the bag. I was thinking about underwater archaeology first." Ann replies, "I'm real adaptable. I just coped. There was no way I was going to whine and complain and nag to get him to stay home. It's hard for archaeologists to also have families."

In 1985, Bass ceased daily diving and began turning more responsibility for the direction of excavations over to younger colleagues, especially Cemal Pulak, whose English is so good that callers sometimes don't realize that he's Turkish; he receives mail at INA addressed to "Jim Al." Bass has endured a lot of ear infections over the years, and he suffers from tinnitus, the result, he believes, of too much time standing next to deafening air compressors. "I've trashed my ears," he says. "I love opera, and I don't want to go deaf." Nevertheless, he plans to dive this summer on a Byzantine wreck, and says he'd like to keep at it until he's 70: "I get euphoric when I dive. I'm determined to be a regular diver again."

Besides, there's a new wreck, discovered close to the Turkish coast in 130 feet of water. It looks to be from the 5th century B.C.E., and no one's ever excavated a ship from that time period. It's lying in deep sand, which means it might be beautifully preserved. "We expect surprises," Bass says, smiling.

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.