50 Years Later – By Dr. Filipe Castro

October 20, 2009

Dr. CastroIn 2010, less than one year from now, George F. Bass and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology will go back to Cape Gelidonya and take a new look at the Late Bronze Age site that 50 years ago was the first shipwreck to be excavated in its entirety on the seabed, by a diving archaeologist, and using the common standards of land archaeology.  The careful excavation, conservation, study, and publication of its artifact collection led archaeologists to believe that this late 13th-Century BCE ship was originally Near Eastern, probably Syrian or Canaanite, and pushed the beginning of the Phoenician seafaring tradition several centuries back.  Such can be the importance of a shipwreck excavation.

Since that summer in 1960 nautical archaeology has developed continuously.  In 1961 Vasa, the Swedish royal ship sank in 1628, was raised, and the excavation of that four-story structure, with almost all of its contents inside, started.  A year later, in 1962, Ole Crumlin-Pedersen started the excavation of five 11th-Century ships at Skuldelev, in Denmark…

As it happens with land sites, most projects started as long ago as that have yielded impressive amounts of information and many are still being studied or re-studied.  Each generation looks at the past with different eyes, and when information is professionally stored, it is possible to go back to projects studied many years ago and ask different questions from the data.

Half a century after these glorious pioneering efforts, it is interesting to take a look at this sub discipline of Archaeology, and ask a few questions.  Was it worth the effort?  What have we learned?  The answer is: a lot.  We came a long way.  Ships are amazing artifacts, and the people that thought, built, and man them, never fail to excite us, from the sailors that explored and colonized the Polynesian triangle to the Viking explorers, from the Indian Ocean merchants that inspired the legend of Sinbad the sailor to the Iberian explorers of the 15th century, or from the pirates of the Caribbean to the sailors of the Battleship Potemkin.  The study of ships has opened many exciting windows into the histories of ideas and technology.  A better understanding of their design, capacity, performance, cost, and strength through time, has improved our knowledge of the history of exploration that continuously shrank the planet for more than two millennia.

What’s next?  The last fifty years can perhaps be divided into two periods.  The sixties and seventies saw excavation and recording techniques being developed, tested, and discussed, and at Texas A&M University – a rather implausible place, when we think about it – nautical archaeology acquired the status of an academic program.  The eighties saw the rise of treasure hunting as an industry, while anthropologists and historians discussed alternative theoretical approaches to the field.  The last three decades saw the appearance of nautical archaeology programs in universities throughout the world, an enormous growth in the number of nautical archaeologists and nautical archaeology projects worldwide, the proliferation of journals and scientific meetings dealing exclusively, or accepting naval history or nautical archaeology papers, and even the rise of an international convention for the protection of the submerged cultural heritage.

The next decades seem promising.  On one side, the amount of data accumulated during the last fifty years, combined with roughly one century of studies in naval history, history of art, and history in general, are allowing archaeologists to ask a few “big questions” for the first time.  On the other hand the development of new technologies promises to let us look at more shipwrecks, quicker, and in places previously not accessible to us.  We can think about looking for patterns without engaging in long term excavations.  The growth of the field in many countries around the world and multiplication of international meetings have brought new voices into the ongoing discussions, and is inviting more and more attempts to branch out into other disciplines and enrich the anthropological approach with other viewpoints, including some promising input from the hard sciences.  Many meetings now include engineers, architects, computer scientists, historians, philologists and historians of science.  A more integrated approach – which was present from the beginning in certain projects – is becoming common ground.

There are a few problems to address, I must avow.  Many archaeologists have been notoriously lazy in studying and publishing the shipwrecks they dig.  Many love to start new excavations and projects before finishing the old ones.   Others (especially in Europe) seem to avoid sharing information as if their peers were their enemies in a vicious competition for some unknown form of power or honor that no one seems to be able to define.  Another group (small, but quite effective) has clustered around a small number of international organizations and spends all its time and energy trying to prevent the younger generations from digging anything.  Even others ignore the general public as if they were not worth their time and energy, mostly when they live and work in countries where treasure hunting is illegal.  This is especially serious because treasure hunters have also multiplied since the eighties.  And they got sophisticated: first they hired public relations’ specialists, then “archaeologists,” and lately lawyers, who try to terrorize whoever dares to say anything against their destructions.  Archaeologists have been terribly slow to get organized and react against this cowardly and ignoble strategy.  Treasure hunters will never go away.  Like creationists and all other snake oil salesmen, they are here to stay and will always have a public ready to defend their viewpoints.

These problems aside, I believe that the next decades will probably be very exciting, both from the viewpoint of the discoveries to be made, and from that of the synthesis made possible by a growing amount of data available.  Perhaps one day shipwrecks will be treated like fossil vertebrates and analyzed within an evolutionary model, memetics seeming the most adequate from where I stand.  And perhaps we will start building databases and cooperating in large numbers.  The next decade will certainly call from crunching large amounts of data and organizing our ships through both taxonomic and cladistic analyses.  To track the creation, transfer, adaptation, and evolution of the knowledge behind the construction of every ship type sounds like an exciting direction to take within the field of nautical archaeology.


Filipe Castro is the Frederick Mayer II associate professor in Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University’s Department of Anthropology and director of the J. Richard Steffy Ship Reconstruction Laboratory.  He currently serves in the executive board of directors of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology, the editorial advisory board of the Nautical Research Journal, the executive board of directors of the International Committee for the History of Nautical Science, and on the editorial board of Historical Archaeology. His publications include the books A nau de Portugal, Lisbon: Prefácio, 2003, The Pepper Wreck, College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005, and Edge of Empire, Proceedings of the Symposium held at 2006 SHA Annual Meeting, Lisbon: Caleidoscópio, 2008 (edited with his former student K. Custer).

* The opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect those of the MUA, its staff, or its partner organizations.



  1. Dear friends, my name’s Gianfranco Vecchio and i’m Ceo of The Historical maritime society, an international Association borned in the 2008 to preserve the history and traditions of maritime and diving and to protect the water enviroment, worldwide.
    Thank’s for your great job and hope to collaborate with you.

    Gianfranco Vecchio

  2. Felipe sings his/the same song well, and he always stirs opinion. The history of shipwreck ‘work’ and exploration is a complex one, with many shifts of opinion and views. His history is sketchy. It really began with salvagers developing diving techniques over a millenium, adventurers seeking both excitement and fortune and again, their inventions of diving and excavation techniques and particularly remote sensing and mapping. The drive in the second half of the 20th. century was spearheaded by amateur adventurer/archaeologists.
    Professional archaeologists added much science and method although poorer marks for management and relationships. Many of my inspirations have come from those archaeologists who had the courage and interest to work with me and to make me better….
    The International interventions have in my view been disastrous. If you really want to protect the cultural heritage – with their prohibitions, insistence on long term institutional funding in place from the beginning, vague definitions of suitable qualifications for work on shipwrecks, the in situ imperative (the Mary Rose if found today would be left where it was in the seabed and locked up! and perhaps even the Vasa which was not at risk.)
    State intervention also means that an unscrupulous licensing system could benefit predators. As to the paucity of long term funding which is a serious problem today, the prohibition against the sale of UCH however fully recorded and serial is a stranglehold which is difficult to defend.
    But having said that, Felipe is still a free spirit and that is what the discovery of the past from under the sea needs today, pace acadaemia.

  3. Hi Rex! Thank you for your comment. I must insist that since what I value is the knowledge we can extract from the sites, I cannot possibly endorse for-profit ventures, which have a long past a failure in retrieving knowledge. I fully agree with you that archaeologists, particularly in southern Europe, have often failed as badly, and keep hiding behind prohibitions while behaving miserably, trading knowledge and power among friends, under the table, without ever getting anything published. But bad archaeologists do not make salvors and THs good. :o)

  4. Hullo Felipe,
    We agree to disagree. But your comments only confirm my view that the management and supervision of saving the uch should never be vested in archaeologists. And we really need a better definition of th’s, and the ‘profit motive’. It seems to me that career advancement and maintaining a serendipity life style is not much different!

    • Dear Rex,

      I fully and completely agree that archaeologists cannot be trusted with the management of the cultural heritage alone. It would not be democratic, and there is a growing consensus that the crowed that joined around the UNESCO Convention is unfortunately protecting a bunch of senile, mean and anal prohibitionists, that have successfully conspired against two generations of young archaeologists, preventing them from digging and thus destroying their careers.

      But the solution is not to mine the archaeological sites and sell the shiny objects. We both know that in the past 50 years THs have done a lot of that.

      How many THs have ever looked at the remains of a ship’s hull and thought that they were an amazing window into the past, a formidable artifact that incorporates so much knowledge, experience and craftsmanship?

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