Beneath the Seven Seas

Bookshelf: Beneath the Seven Seas

Beneath the Seven Seas: Adventures with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology – edited by George F. Bass

Beneath the Seven Seas
Beneath the Seven Seas

Tony’s had this book for ages, and it’s been lying next to my side of the bed waiting for attention. When our house flooded in late June last year, it got a little bit damp, which moved it to the top of the pile (for drying, and, subsequently, for reading).

I loved it! The book is edited by George Bass, one of the founders of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, with several contributions from him. Bass founded the Institute in 1973, and has worked on shipwrecks all over the world, mainly ones within the range of recreational scuba divers. Robert Ballard, who specialises mainly in deep water archaeology, also contributes briefly to this book.

It’s organised into sections by the time period of the vessel or historical site, and further into short chapters, amply illustrated with photographs from the field, of archaeologists and conservators at work, and of reconstructions of the vessels excavated. The chapter length is lovely because it enables the book to encompass a huge range of sites, and the photographs left me completely satisfied and delighted. I’ve been frustrated by the lack of photographic material in several of Robert Ballard’s books.

Most of the sites dived are in the Mediterranean, but I was particularly struck by one of the Carribbean ones – Port Royal in Jamaica. In 1692 a massive earthquake caused a portion of the town – built on a sand spit, using rudimentary building techniques at best and dangerous short cuts at worst – to sink into the sea. It now lies in shallow water (less than 10 metres deep, it seems) and the buildings and their contents have been remarkably well preserved owing to near-anoxic conditions. The idea of scuba diving in a sunken city is quite engaging!

Something that emerges strongly from this book is the essential work done in conserving and interpreting the artifacts after they have been retrieved from the seabed (or wherever their resting place is). Estimates by the INA are that two years of conservation are required for every month of diving – it can take years to stabilise and treat a large shipwreck, and a long view of things is required to find fulfilment in this kind of work.

This is the best nautical archaeology book I’ve read and is aimed at the lay reader (i.e. me). You can purchase it here if you are in South Africa, otherwise here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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