Shipwrecks and old golf clubs in a sea of information

International Handbook of Underwater Archaeology
October 31, 2003

In a field bursting with visual fantasy it is easy to revert to stereotypes in writing about underwater archaeology. Rather than dredge old sea-lanes, however, this handbook offers a refreshing update of current archaeological results and debate.

Purporting to be global in scope, from the Mediterranean to the Americas and Australasia (yet Asia is almost entirely unrepresented), particularly striking is the book's depth and the wealth of the maritime resource and the reality of just how closely its heritage impacts on society. The protection of maritime heritage has vexed the intellect of early modern legislators for centuries, typified by Peter the Great, who signed an edict in 1718 to collect and protect historical articles found both in the ground and underwater. Today underwater archaeology is no longer a rara avis perched awkwardly at the periphery of our sources.

The handbook describes how 70,000 sport divers undertake 1.5 million annual dives off the UK. The 5,000 shipwrecks along the North Carolina coast dating back to the 16th century are a source of management debate as serious as that directed at ancient settlements. In France, the 28 staff members of DRASSM (Direction des Recherches Archéologique Sous-Marine) make up a state-supported institution with a substantial research centre, operations vessel and its own publication series.

And the aquatic environment is not just the realm of rotted hulls, but, thanks to superior levels of preservation, it supplies history books with primary data qualitatively superior to those obtained on land.

The pioneering salvage in 1900 of a Roman wreck from 80-70BC off Antikythera, Greece, brought to light an ugly concretion that radiography identified as an astronomical "computer". Using interlocking cogs a water clock calculated the days of the month, signs of the zodiac, moon phases and positions of the planets. This device is considered by far the most complex technological artefact known from the ancient world. The excavation of the Lastdrager , a Dutch East Indiaman lost in 1653 off the Shetlands while sailing to Batavia, yielded cast-brass artefacts catalogued as "cauldron feet" that, on further research, turned out to be some of the oldest extant colfsloffen : golf clubs, to you and me.

Meanwhile the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A & M University is working with sea-lion trainers to discover whether these aquatic mammals can be taught to identify maritime materials in the same way they target lost naval hardware. As Anne Giesecke from the Institute of Heritage Administration in Washington concludes: "Today after two decades of bad weather, shipwreck enthusiasts of all stripes are finding themselves with more technology, less money and a mixed legal weather forecast for the future."

The reasons for this are largely a consequence of an absence of creative managers in the field capable of publicising how the discipline impacts on modern society and possessing the skills to propel it towards broader mainstream studies in higher education (film studies or journalism, for instance).

Despite masses of wonderful detail, at approaching 900 pages a handbook this is not. False advertising aside, the editors have produced a highly disciplined, encyclopaedic volume that is the most informative of its genre. Within 48 chapters penned by leading specialists, the reader is offered a detailed grounding in the history of underwater exploration, shipwrecks, submerged ports, marine technology and national cultural resource management and traditions. The price tag is horrific and the absence of alluring images a disappointment that will confine this volume firmly to the shelves of academic institutions for reference purposes.

Given the book's huge scope this is a crying shame.

Sean Kingsley is managing editor, Minerva (the International Review of Ancient Art and Archaeology).

International Handbook of Underwater Archaeology

Editor - Carol V. Ruppe and Janet F. Barstad
Publisher - Kluwer Academic/ Plenum
Pages - 881
Price - £140.00
ISBN - 0 306 46345 8

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