George F. Bass, often called the father of underwater archeology, was searching for shipwrecks for uncovering artifacts and developing new techniques for exploring the ocean, died on March 2 in a hospital in Bryan, Texas. He was 88.
His son Gordon confirmed the death.
Professor Bass was a graduate student in 1960 when he first donned a diving wagon and dived to the seabed of the Mediterranean. He went on to find bronze blocks of more than 3,000 years old, wooden fragments that solved mysteries about shipbuilding from the time of the “Odyssey”, and much more – treasures that opened a new field for archeology, one that for him was boundless like the Seven Seas.
Excavation of shipwrecks can not only yield ‘the ultimate history of watercraft’, he later wrote, but also ‘the ultimate history of virtually everything humans have ever made’.
Professor Bass has led or is leading archeological efforts around the world, including in the United States, but he focused on the coast of Turkey – for thousands of years a maritime trade route for a succession of civilizations, from the ancient Canaanites to the early Byzantine Empire.
The oldest submerged shipwreck he excavated lay near the southern Turkish peninsula known as Uluburun. The wreck, probably the remains of a royal vessel, can be dated to a few years of 1,300 BC, the end of the Bronze Age and the era of the Trojan War and King Tut. There was a lush cargo – items such as hippo ivory, a golden scarab named Queen Nefertiti (the only one ever found) and which is probably the oldest wooden writing board ever discovered.
Professor Bass wrote that the Uluburun ship sheds new light “on the history of literacy, trade, ideas, metallurgy, metrology, art, music, religion and international relations, as well as for fields such as Homeric studies and Egyptology.”
The historical value of sunken treasures was recognized at the beginning of the 20th century, when Greeks diving into a sponge encountered a shipwreck with, among other things, a beautiful ancient Greek. bronze statue of a young man known as the Antikythera Youth. But sustained archaeological work under the sea was only feasible until 1943, when oceanographers Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emil Gagnan invented the aqualung.
Early on, archaeologists who wanted to use the waterwater remained above ground and relied on reports from hired divers, who did not have archaeological expertise. Professor Bass followed a more practical approach. He became the first archaeologist to do his own diving work while supervising other divers. And he arranged on-site training in underwater excavation methods for fellow archaeologists and students.
With the help of scientists he recruited for his teams, he designed new methods to remove artifacts from the seabed and to spend long periods underwater. An important early insight was that objects that look like rocks can be the damaged remnants of metalware. Professor Bass X-ray which he found interesting. If a rocky object contained an inner cavity where a metal object was, he would have thrown epoxy inside and thrown a substitute.
His excavations yielded enlightening material on ancient shipbuilding. His first expedition, off Cape Gelidonya in Turkey, solved a mystery as to why Homer refers to chest wood on Odysseus’ ship. The remains of a sunken ship there revealed that brushwood was used as a cushion for heavy cargo to protect the hull.
Deborah Carlson, the president of the Institute of Nautical Archeology, who helped Professor Bass create and then ran a large part of his life, eventually in Texas, said he deserves to be considered the founder of the field.
“Under his leadership, old shipwrecks were excavated underwater for the first time,” she said in a telephone interview. “He did this by taking his archeological training and putting on diving equipment and taking the excavation to a new dimension.”
In sy lecturesProfessor Bass likes to tell the audience about the ancient world of sea voyages – which he said people developed before farming, shepherding or metalworking – and about the infinity of shipwrecks that would be discovered.
“We will never run out of worthy sites,” he wrote Beneath the Seven Seas (2005), a book describing his career. ‘Hundreds of ships sank in one day in the Aegean storms. We can not calculate the number of wrecks in one sea. ”
George Fletcher Bass was born on December 9, 1932 in Columbia, SC. His father, Robert, was an English professor and popular historian, and his mother, Virginia (Wauchope) Bass, edited collections of poems. After his father accepted a teaching position at the Naval Academy, George grew up in Annapolis. He later joined the army himself and served as a lieutenant in a communications unit in post-war Korea.
After being honorably discharged in the late fifties, he earned a Ph.D. in Classical Archeology at the University of Pennsylvania. At the time, an American photojournalist named Peter Throckmorton was researching Turkish sponge divers and learning that they knew about ancient artifacts on the seabed. Mr. Throckmorton wrote to famed archaeologist Rodney Young asking for bail for a proper excavation. Professor Young turned to one of his graduate students who specialized in the Bronze Age and read enthusiastically about deep-sea dives – George Bass.
Mr. Bass was less than fully prepared. He only had six weeks to get a ten-week diving course at a YMCA in Philadelphia. Before joining the expedition and diving 100 meters into the Mediterranean Sea, he only tried a tank once and not deeper than ten feet – in a swimming pool. Yet the first trip became the foundation for the rest of his career.
“You have to be young and ignorant and naive to get anywhere,” he reflected in an interview with the Penn Museum in 2010.
He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and became a professor there in 1964. Although he entered office, he left his post in 1973 with his colleagues J. Richard Steffy and Michael L. Katzev, an independent institute dedicated to the Archaeological seafaring.
Professor Bass and his wife – he married Ann Singletary in 1960 – sold their house, car and furniture and moved to Cyprus with their two sons. Their stay was short-lived. When Turkey invaded Greece in 1974 over fighting for control of the island, the Basses fled in the middle of the night.
The Texas A&M University in College Station offered to house Professor Bass’ institute and make him and his colleagues members of the faculty. Now known as the Institute of Nautical Archeology, dug it up dozens of shipwrecks across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Professor Bass’ early research helped set Turkey in motion Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archeology, which today is one of the leading institutions of its kind worldwide.
In addition to his son Gordon, he is survived by his wife; another son, Alan; and two grandchildren.
Professor Bass considers the biggest threat to his work to come from treasure hunters in the hopes of viewing artifacts as loot. He called them “Destructive to our search for knowledge of the past.”
“It’s relatively simple to find and store antiquities or antiquities,” he said. “It is what happens later to those antiquities or antiquities that make their restoration part of archeology.”