Science George F. Bass
He goes off the deep end in search of ancient treasure.
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George F. Bass answers the phone and announces that he’s dripping wet. Well, what else would you expect from the father of underwater archaeology? But he hasn’t just emerged from the depths of the Mediterranean, whose waters he has explored for the past forty years; he’s fresh from the shower. “Can’t talk. Gotta run. It’s a crazy summer,” says Bass, who is at his second home, in the coastal town of Bodrum, in southern Turkey. On this day in late May he’s dashing off to lead a tour of the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, where an exhibit on what may be his most important find is about to open. In a couple of days he will begin a second season excavating a shipwreck from the Golden Age of Greece (think Socrates and Pericles and the Parthenon). And then there’s the ribbon cutting for the new library and conservation laboratory at the Bodrum headquarters of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, which he cofounded in 1972 to raise money for underwater exploration. At the age of 67, on the verge of retirement, Bass has never been busier, but he promises to squeeze in a talk with me a little later in the week. In the meantime, I get acquainted with Texas A&M’s distinguished professor of nautical archaeology by wading into a stack of National Geographic magazines. A 1962 article chronicles the first underwater archaeological excavation ever undertaken—of a Bronze Age trading vessel that sank off Turkey’s Cape Gelidonya—which was led by Bass at the ripe old age of 27. His wife, Ann, had accompanied him, as she would on many future expeditions, and one photo shows the couple carefully painting plastic preservatives on pieces of the recovered ship. Another photo of Bass, in a 1963 issue, catches my eye. He looks like Ricky Nelson—a very earnest Ricky Nelson—in a wet suit.
“I loved to read about diving, but I never dreamed I’d dive myself,” Bass tells me when we finally connect, admitting that he owned more books on diving than on archaeology when he was studying and digging in Athens in the fifties. But the budding aquanaut almost gave up the watery underworld when he couldn’t clear his ears during his first deep- water plunge, in 1960. Had he quit, it’s a good bet that someone else would have been the first to apply the mapping standards of a land dig to underwater sites, and someone else would have helped develop the first underwater “telephone booth” (an air-filled Plexiglas dome, weighted to the seafloor and equipped with a telephone line, where divers can literally take a breather and contact the ship). In 1988 the National Geographic Society might have given someone else its Centennial Award, bestowed on an august group of scientists and explorers that included Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Jane Goodall, and Richard and Mary Leakey.And the Bodrum museum would have had to rely on someone else to fill it with spectacular antiquities rescued from the seabed. (It is itself an antiquity, housed in the medieval Castle of the Knights of Saint John of Malta, which was built with stones from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.) The museum is the repository of such stunning Bass finds as the world’s largest collection of medieval Islamic glass. More than 10,000 delicate objects were pulled from the Mediterranean in the late seventies, some of them, incredibly, completely intact, many more in shards. A small staff worked full-time for twenty years reassembling and photographing the eleventh-century treasures. The hull of the ship that had transported them, which was in several thousand pieces when it was raised, was soaked in polyethylene glycol for three years to prevent warping and shrinking. Painstakingly reassembled, it is now viewed by more than a quarter of a million museum visitors a year.
That’s a hard act to top, but the museum’s Uluburun exhibit, which opened in July, represents the zenith of Bass’s career. Around 3,300 years ago, a Late Bronze Age trading vessel sank off the Turkish promontory of Uluburun, coming to rest on a steep slope at narcosis-inducing depths ranging from 145 to 200 feet. The shipwreck, a trove of new information about its era, is often called one of the top ten archaeological sites on earth, and the artifacts retrieved from it are, to quote Bass in a moment of non-academic exuberance, “mind-blowing”: copper, glass, and tin ingots; Canaanite pottery jars filled with resin that was used for incense; the world’s oldest diptych (a hingelike wooden book fitted with wax “pages”); elephant tusks and hippopotamus teeth; Canaanite gold and silver jewelry; bronze tools and weapons; and Cypriot ceramics. We’re talking tons of artifacts, which Bass, along with expedition codirector Cemal Pulak and other team members, spent eleven summers and more than 22,500 dives recovering. For Bass, however, it isn’t the astonishing abundance of the Uluburun excavation that makes it priceless: “A piece of gold doesn’t mean anything.” It’s the stories told by the details, like the golden scarab inscribed with the hieroglyphic for Nefertiti; the style of the inscription convinced some Egyptologists that the beautiful queen must have ruled as an equal alongside her famous husband, Akhenaten.
Forget the Hollywood hype about archaeology. Bass’s career has not been one long romantic adventure spent amassing personal wealth. For one thing, every single fragment of history he has recovered from the ocean floor has been turned over to the country with jurisdiction over the site. And Bass estimates that expedition members spend two years on conservation and research for every month they dive. Ever the scholar, he doesn’t consider this meticulous study onerous: “The greatest thrill, without exception, comes from the library, when you can understand something about what you’ve found, when it all comes together and it means something.”
On the other hand, Bass and his team members have endured their share of dramatic trials. They’ve camped on rat-infested islands, braved brutal winds and heat, wrestled artifacts away from a possessive octopus, sliced fingers and feet on 975-year-old shards of glass, and sometimes lost as much as thirty pounds each during a summer spent submerged in chilly waters. This past winter, a ferocious storm hit the expedition’s camp at Tektas Burnu, a cape on Turkey’s western coast, and flung its two 3,000-pound generators off a cliff “like corks.” Team members had to fish one of them from one hundred feet of water.
Bass is now ready to pass his flippers on to a younger expedition leader, and in December he’ll retire from Texas A&M after almost a quarter century of teaching there. Will National Geographic then feature the explorer rocking on the porch of his College Station home, recounting his past exploits? It’s unlikely. Bass has his heart set on another first: a research ship for the humanities. The passengers will be the myriad professionals who are drawn to underwater expeditions, from photographers to physicists, artists to archaeologists. Bass envisions a sort of interdisciplinary ark sailing the Red, Black, and Mediterranean seas in search of ancient shipwrecks. “I can see an engineer learning about Homer while a classicist learns about magnetometers and sonar and a physician learns about underwater photography,” he says, “and all the while they are a team filling in gaps in our knowledge of the past.”