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Beneath the Seven Seas: Adventures with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology

Beneath the Seven Seas: Adventures with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology

Edited by George Bass. Pp. 256, b&w pls. 23, color pls. 410. Thames and Hudson, London 2005. $39.95. ISBN 0-500-05136-4.

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Beneath the Seven Seas is a beautifully illustrated book intended for a popular audience, but it will also appeal to scholars. Scores of underwater images and photographs from exotic locations around the globe convey the romantic appeal of nautical archaeology. Occasional references in the text to decompression sickness, aggressive moray eels and octopuses, and razor-sharp cliffs and rocks add an edge of adventure to scholarly shipwreck investigations. An academic reader may find this excitement unnecessary, but it spices the text for general shipwreck enthusiasts.

Contributions by editor Bass and 27 coauthors are organized into seven chronological sections. Descriptions of dozens of sites span prehistory to the modern era. Most are shipwrecks underwater, including well-known wrecks such as the Bronze Age Uluburun, Hellenistic Kyrenia, and Titanic. Exceptions to sites underwater are remains of 15th- and 17th-century hulls in the more or less dry fields of the Zuidersee in the Netherlands. Discussion of the submerged 17th-century town of Port Royal, Jamaica, establishes that nautical archaeology extends beyond watercraft. Taken together, the articles in this volume offer an engaging survey of a half century of Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) field projects.

Read from a scholarly point of view, Beneath the Seven Seas is more than a coffee-table book. It chronicles the creation of a new academic field, including development of theoretically framed research questions and the invention and evolution of novel investigative methods. Recent updates to the diving and recording techniques pioneered by INA demonstrate nautical archaeology’s methodological vigor. For instance, Frey’s 1977 saturation diving experiments at 80 m are juxtaposed with Ballard’s 2003 robotically based investigations of a shipwreck in the 320 m anoxic depths of the Black Sea. Bass’ 2003 dives to Titanic in the Russian Mir submersible echo his 1960s trials of search-and-inspection submersibles such as Asherah and Towvane. Phaneuf’s sonar mapping of D-Day wreckage shows that technologies once exotic to underwater archaeology are now routinely employed and commercially available.

The obvious value of nautical archaeology is that it delivers information about the past that cannot be gleaned from other sources. Prime examples of this are the Bronze Age wrecks at Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun, detailed respectively by Bass and Pulak. These excavations proved that Semitic seafarers ranged across the eastern Mediterranean, profoundly altering our understanding of their role in the ancient world. These projects shed light on commodity and luxury good exchange, trade networks, and international relations in the 13th century B.C.E., perfectly complementing evidence drawn from land archaeology.

Beneath the Seven Seas demonstrates a special property of underwater investigations: the allure of nautical archaeology seizes the general public’s imagination. This not only provides an opportunity to transmit a profoundly new understanding of the past but also tells familiar historical stories from a fascinating perspective. For instance, Switzer’s discussion of the American Revolutionary War privateer Defence portrays a side of that conflict typically overlooked. The ship was part of the Penobscot Expedition fleet intended to eject the British garrison at Castine, Maine. Instead, the fleet was routed by a British squadron, and Defence’s men scuttled the ship to avoid her capture. Excavation of the site in the late 1970s brought tangible links to the crew: their mess kits, weapons, and navigational instruments. Besides connecting the present with a formative moment in American history, the project and its historical background remind us of a larger truth: one can lose the battle but still win the war.

Intriguing additions to this book are page insets, thumbnails containing key information for many projects. Listed for some wrecks are the age of the site, its depth, the date of excavation, the number of dives performed on-site, and occasionally the costs associated with the projects. This would be a welcome component for future compendia, but easier comparisons could have been made if the categories of information were consistent for each project; similarly, project budgets should be normalized to a single year to give a better sense of actual costs.

The broad sweep of Beneath the Seven Seas makes for interesting reading, and the list of contributors includes INA’s latest generation of scholars in addition to the founders of the field. The body of work described is impressive, but the lack of a concluding chapter is a missed opportunity for Bass and colleagues to draw general conclusions by synthesizing their results. It would be useful to see connections drawn among these many sites, coupled with evidence from land excavations and historical sources. Likewise, a summation would provide a place to comment on future directions for the field. Instead, we must be satisfied with the continuation of INA’s research strategy as outlined by Bass in the introduction: finding and excavating one ship from every century of the past (27). This conforms to his theoretical rubric for the evolution of ship hull design, presented as a linear progress narrative that moves from sewn construction to shell-first hulls joined by mortise-and-tenon to “modern” frame-first techniques. Beneath the Seven Seas, however, does not identify or speculate on the agents driving these changes. INA’s first 50 years of inquiry ably establish the next generation of nautical archaeologists, and we can expect them to expand these theories or develop new ones.

Beneath the Seven Seas serves an important function, placing archaeological scholarship in front of a broad public in an understandable and entertaining fashion. It will be eagerly received by that audience, but the book is also a must-have for the shelves of practicing archaeologists.

Brendan P. Foley
Deep Submergence Laboratory
Department of Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543

Book Review of Beneath the Seven Seas: Adventures with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, edited by George Bass

Reviewed by Brendan P. Foley

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (October 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1114.Foley

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