Life in Salt: A Nostalgic Interview with the Father of Underwater Archaeology, Dr. George Bass
by Owen James Burke
Dr. George Bass circa 1977 (Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology/Jonathan Blair)
“…to me, diving—although I enjoy it immensely and I’m very sad that I’ll never dive again because I felt like I was so free underwater—was like driving a Jeep to get to my work site… I never got over a slight nervousness… I crossed the Atlantic twenty seven times in a ship before I ever flew across it.”
Dr. George Bass has found some of the oldest shipwrecks bearing some of the most ancient and invaluable treasures known to archaeology. Among them: the oldest book ever found (c. 1300 BC), a Bronze Age shipwreck filled with hippopotamus teeth, elephant tusks, 10 tons of coper ingots and 3 tons of glass ingots — the only glass ingots known to have survived history. He helped to recover the only the only gold scarab ever found from Queen Nefertiti of Egypt, and he’s also one of the few people to have ever seen the wreck of the Titanic in person, 12,000 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic. In a career spanning over 40 years with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Dr. Bass has, inarguably, seen it all.
But Dr. Bass did not start his career out as a diver, or with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. In fact, prior to diving, he served as a lieutenant-in-charge of a 30-man U.S. Army detachment in Korea. And, having spent most of his formative years on the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the ocean hardly had any place in his imagination. In some respects, it was just his office, and his dives were merely a means of getting there. In other ways, it bore his wildest dreams.
Scut: What first drew you into the sea? You were born in Colombia, South Carolina?
Dr. GB: Actually I was born there, but I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland—my dad taught at the Naval Academy. But that isn’t what interested me in the sea. By chance—I was studying to be a regular land, terrestrial archaeologist—when Peter Throckmorton, who worked for sponge divers a couple of summers in Turkey, found a Bronze Age shipwreck—he reported it to the University of Pennsylvania museum where I was a graduate student. I had worked on land in Gordium, Turkey, with the head of the department—Rodney Young. He asked me if I’d like to learn how to dive to be the archaeologist in charge of an excavation. I said, “Sure.”
I was a student in Greece for two years before I went to the University of Pennsylvania, and I had more books on diving then on archaeology. I used to love to read about it—all the early books by Hans Hass and Cousteau and people of that sort. I never thought I’d learn to dive myself—I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been asked to. So I took six lessons out of a ten-lesson course at the local YMCA. In the sixth lesson, we were still practicing in the shallow end, snorkeling, using our fins, and learning how to hold our breath. I said to the instructor, Dave Stiff, “Can I try on a tank just once, please? I leave for Turkey tomorrow, and the wreck is 100 feet deep.” So I’d never dived outside of a pool before I headed off for Turkey.
Scut: That’s incredible. So what was that like, heading off to dive a 100-foot deep wreck after six lessons?
Dr. GB: The hardest thing about my first dives was falling over my back a lot, because I couldn’t be balanced. I was clumsy, but I got on to it pretty quickly. Our chief diver was Frédéric Dumas, who was Cousteau’s chief diver—he co-authored The Silent World. He went down on my first dive and watched me very carefully, so I had good people with me.
Scut: That would put me at some ease, too, at least I think. What’s the most frightening thing that’s happened to you at sea?
Dr. GB: Once, after I hadn’t dived for four years—I quit underwater archaeology in 1969, because we’d had some serious things happen in our recompression chamber. We had a sponge diver die in it, and one of our good friends who’d dived with me every year got an air embolism and was very close to death, but he lived. So I thought, “I don’t want to do this anymore, it’s too dangerous.” Not for me, but I didn’t want to pull some co-ed out of the water, dead. So I started a little land dig in southern Turkey. But I really missed the underwater business, so I went back to it four years later and founded the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in 1973. So, I hadn’t been diving.
Our first thing was a survey, surveying for a wreck we’d heard about from a sponge diver. We were about 130 or 140 feet deep, swimming around—and in those days we didn’t have Sea-Doo gauges that tell you how much air you had left in your tank—when you ran out of air, you reached behind you and pulled a little lever that gave you your reserve. And sometimes there was no reserve—if you’d bumped your tank or something, you’d sometimes hear a “whisssh” which was the sound of your reserve popping.
I was breathing until the very end, and it was getting very hard, so I pulled the lever for my reserve, and there wasn’t one. And so I panicked—I never thought to drop my weight belt. I just started clawing my way to the surface, thinking about my wife and kids. Then, our archaeological commissioner, a Turk, saw me, swam very quickly over to me, and jammed his mouthpiece into my mouth. It was a regulator I’d never used before—we were always diving with two-hose regulators in those days—so I wasn’t even sure how to put it in my mouth. It looked very awkward to me, and I was flailing around with a lot of bubbles. We got to the surface, and the boat had drifted so far away that it was barely in sight. It was a pretty tense little dive.
No dive should be adventurous, though, because if it’s adventurous it means you’ve done something wrong. And I’d done something wrong—I should have checked my reserve sooner. That’s the only time I ever thought that I might die.
At any rate, going through a hurricane being on the Queen Mary was a terrifying experience. I didn’t get out of my bunk for two days, except to go to the bathroom or something. My wife would go up, come back down and say, “I’m the only person in the dining room!” She has a stomach of iron.
I never saw how big the waves were, but when it was all over, the companionway of the wooden stairs—to go up to the bridge where the captain is—was just kindling on the deck. That meant the entire bow must have been going under the waves. I could feel it shuddering and shaking. I was terrified—I make a living because ships go down.
Scut: What a fitting end that would have been (I say with all due respect).
Gold scarab from Queen Nefertiti-era Egypt (Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology/Donald A. Frey)
Scut: What’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to you, or your favorite ocean story?
Dr. GB: People always think I’m joking, because I always say the most thrilling discoveries are made afterwards, in the library. For example, we found a gold scarab on one wreck we dug, and I didn’t know that it was the only gold scarab ever found from Queen Nefertiti of Egypt. That was pretty remarkable. Another thing we found was some pieces of wood. A graduate student of mine at the time—who is now a colleague on the faculty, a brilliant Turkish archaeologist—was an engineering student then started putting all these pieces of wood together. He said, “We have a diptych.” I asked him what he meant, and he showed me that we had two wooden covers made of boxwood with an ivory hinge. On the inner surface—it was all gone, but we now know that it was beeswax for a writing surface. So this was the oldest book ever found.
Diptych from the Uluburun Shipwreck (Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology)
Dr. GB: This was from about 1300 B.C. So that was very exciting. There’s only one line in Homer that refers to writing, and it says, “he sent him to Lycia with baneful signs written on a folding wooden tablet.” People say, “that has to be a later edition, because they didn’t have books back in the time of the Trojan War.” But they’re wrong. They did have them.
That was exciting—much more exciting than just finding something and not knowing what it is.
(Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology)
Scut: I’m sure I can’t even imagine. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found, or would that be it?
Dr. GB: I don’t know if you read books online, but my autobiography just came out and it’s only available on Kindle. It’s called Archaeology Beneath the Sea: 50 Years of Diving on Wrecks. It’s got pictures of all these things.
It’s a shame, because when I wasn’t there, they found this lump of concretion, seabed concretion—it’s like concrete that builds up over things in the sea. When they took it to the laboratory and had it cleaned, it turned out to be a small bronze goddess that’s covered partly in gold. She’s beautiful, a Canaanite goddess—she may have been the ship’s protective deity; in which case, she didn’t do a very good job.
Scut: I guess not. What’s something that you’ve always found in wrecks, apart from the obvious?
Dr. GB: We found pottery in all of them.
Scut: I guess that was the only way to transport liquids back then.
Dr. GB: Yeah. And except for one wreck, we found traces of the wooden hulls. In some cases, it’s been enough that we can reconstruct the ship in the museum at full-scale and walk on the deck. A former student of mine, who became a colleague and helped me found the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, did an ancient Greek shipwreck off the coast of Cyprus which was 75% preserved. They could bring the hull up and not only re-assemble that ship, but make a full replica. It sails, and it followed the original voyage and went through a full gale. That’s exciting.
Scut: I’m amazed at how many wrecks you’ve found off Turkey—it certainly equates with the number of tempests that run through that area of the Mediterranean.
Dr. GB: Well, you’re talking about 3,600 years. That’s a lot. While we were working there, there was a gale that went through and destroyed thirty boats in one harbor in one day. We know that in antiquity, the Persians lost over a hundred ships in a storm when they were trying to invade Greece. So there are lots of wrecks.
There’s a book by an oceanographer called Deep Water, Ancient Ships by Willard Bascom. He made a study of Lloyd’s Register of Ships for the 19th century sailing ships. He determined that most ships end up sinking somewhere, and if they do sink, it’s usually because they’ve hit something—usually land. There are ships that turn over in storms, get sunk by an enemy action, or catch fire, but most of them just hit a reef or land and sink.
We have a small, two-person submersible now, where you sit inside an acrylic sphere—so you have good visibility in all directions. We did a survey in 2001 and in one month, we found fourteen wrecks while revisiting ten wrecks we already knew about to get good GPS coordinates. That’s a wreck every other day. We followed cliff-faces, and they were right at the bottom of the cliffs where they had gone down.
Scut: That must be something to have seen all that. I can’t imagine it. What was it like hauling three tons of broken glass to the surface?
Dr. GB: We did it in plastic bags, a few pounds at a time. We worked on it for three summers, so there were lots of dives.
We did a Bronze Age shipwreck—which is the most exciting wreck we’ve done so far—that was displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; they got it on loan from Turkey. It was carrying ten tons of raw copper ingots and one ton of tin ingots, which would make ten tons of bronze, because the mixture is usually one to ten. It had two hundred glass ingots, thirteen hippopotamus teeth, and elephant tusks as raw ivory. It was carrying a cargo of raw materials, which are not found on land. Nobody knew about these glass ingots before, because as soon as they would get to Greece or Egypt or wherever they were going, they would have melted them down and made them into something typical of their own culture. We also found ebony logs, which would have been made into furniture right away.
Glass ingots from Bronze Age Shipwreck Uluburun (Aka Kas Wreck) (Courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology)
There was also a ton of something called terebinth resin. We couldn’t explain what that was—it’s from a tree that’s related to the pistachio tree—but then I read in the library again a book in French. Some crazy French Egyptologist wrote a book which was published after he died in Cairo. He was trying to prove that a word in Egyptian hieroglyphs meant terebinth resin. And if so, he said, tons of it was imported by the pharaoh from the Near East to burn as incense in religious rites. It hadn’t been found before because it had all been burned up in the past. So it took a wreck to save it.
Dr. GB: Then we were trying to figure out where the ship sailed from. We knew it was somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean coast, Israel, Lebanon, or Syria. Cemal Pulak—the Turkish archaeologist I was talking about who got a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering before I convinced him that he could be a good archaeologist—is also a naturalist. I would never have known this, but in the terebinth resin, he noticed that there were small fragments of snail shells. He knew that geographically, various types of snail are very location-specific. He found out—working with a German snail expert—that there was only one place where the two types they were finding existed side-by-side. It was near the Dead Sea, in Israel. It wasn’t too far from where we were thinking—on the basis of other things—that the ship had sailed from. So there’s a lot of detective work of that sort.
Fred van Doorninck (Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology)
Dr. GB: I’ve worked the longest with Fred van Doorninck, who was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. He started the year after me, in 1961. After he got his Ph.D he went and taught at the University of California at Davis, but after Texas A&M formed a department of Nautical Archaeology, he came here to join the faculty. I saw him just this past weekend—we’re both retired professors.
Claude Duthuit (Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology)
I had a Frenchman I worked with, but he died about three years ago. He was a terribly good friend, Claude Duthuit. We dived together from 1960 on—he even lent me his pup tent for a honeymoon suite on a narrow strip of beach at the bottom of a cliff where we camped in 1960. Believe it or not, in 2010, just four years ago, there were only three of us of the original dive team still alive—Claude, who is a year older than me, myself, and a German who was the youngest of us at 74. I was 77, and Claude was 78. So went to back to the site in Cape Gelidonya where we’d begun the Bronze Age wreck that Peter Throckmorton had found—we all dove down and shook hands. We got a beautiful picture of us all shaking hands over the wreck. Since then, Claude has died, and I’ve had a couple of strokes—I’m not going to dive anymore—so we did it just in time. Claude was good, and Cemal Pulak is incredible—he’s such a good archaeologist. He’s so bright, and his students say that he knows everything—that he’s a walking encyclopedia.
Scut: Could you talk a little bit about your technological advances?
Dr. GB: Fred van Doorninck and I did a study together in 1966, looking through all the diving logs at how we’d spent our time on any specific dive. It showed what percentage of our time we spent mapping, what percentage we spent sweeping sand away from the wreck, what percentage we’d spent using airlifts—which are suction pipes—what percentage of everything.
We figured out that we spent a lot of time mapping, and we wondered how we could do it faster. We did it with meter tapes, and we’d also tried plane tables underwater and other sorts of things. I developed a method of mapping with stereo photography—just like airplanes that make aerial surveys. It was so impressive that the Navy adopted it from us and gave us some good grants.
Ann Bass christening the Asherah
(Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology/Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics)
We had the first commercially built manned submersible—the first ever built in the United States—back in 1964, the Asherah, named after the Phoenician sea goddess. With a Navy grant, we developed a method of sailing over a wreck with the submersible taking serial pairs. We could map a wreck in an hour, which might have taken us many weeks earlier. Now, that’s all old-fashioned—we’d never go back to that. I don’t know how we map now.
Our team was the first to find an ancient shipwreck with side-scan sonar back in 1967. I mentioned that submersible we had, but we have a much better submersible now that has much better visibility. There have been developments in acrylics, so we go down in a sphere to be able to see what we’re doing. The ports in the Asherah were small—only six inches in diameter—so it was very hard to see where you were going or to survey with it efficiently.
Scut: How deep was the Asherah able to dive?
Dr. GB: It could go to 600 feet. The new submersible only goes to 150 feet, and I had it designed for that depth because I had a friend who died in a submersible that his father designed. They got tangled up 180 feet down by some cables while they were looking at a modern shipwreck. They got caught, two people died, and two survived. I thought if it’s in diving depths that you can send a diver down in—if it gets caught in fishing nets or something like that—cut it free.
Scut: Sure. Can you talk a little bit about diving the Titanic?
Dr. GB: It was certainly exciting. I was afraid when I was invited, and I really didn’t want to do it. I emailed my sons—I was in Turkey at the time—and I was hoping that they or my wife would talk me out of it. They all said, “You’ve got to do it, Dad. Even if something goes wrong, what a wonderful obituary they’d write about a nautical archaeologist dying on the Titanic.” So I went out there, and we were on a Russian ship for ten days—just one dive a day, because it was two and a half hours down, five or six hours on the wreck, and two and a half hours back up. So it was one dive with the two submersibles they had on board—which meant four passengers with two pilots a day. I was on the tenth day, and I had seen someone come up exuberant—just overjoyed with their dive, so I’d lost any feeling of nervousness once I get into the submersible. I was looking when we passed a thousand meters, and thought “Hey, that’s really something.” We went two and half miles.
Dr. Bass just before his 2.5 mile descent to see the Titanic, 2003
(Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology/David Concannon)
I was surprised at how immense the ship looked when we came down on sea-bed level. Looking up it was some kind of monster, but it was still embedded 50 feet in the sand when it went down. I didn’t have any emotions, particularly, until I saw a lone woman’s shoe. I saw that lying there—it probably came out of someone’s cabin, as opposed to someone wearing it, but still…it made it come alive.
Scut: That’s chilling. So the name of the ROV for that was the Mir? How did that compare to the other subs you’ve dived in?
Dr. GB: Well, there are very few subs in the world that can go down to that depth. It was much larger than the Asherah, there were three of us in there, and you could lay out in it—I was lying down most of the time. It was almost like a cot where I was lying and looking out the window. We had lunch, we had urinals—which is important.
Scut: Like an undersea hotel room, huh?
Dr. GB: Yeah.
Scut: How has the sea changed since you were young, in your eyes?
Dr. GB: We can now decompress on pure oxygen at twenty feet. The table has been worked out by a professor at Duke University—but we started using oxygen even before he worked out the table.
It used to be a real macho thing—a bunch of guys out there doing this—and so when some of our first female students came, I would have them time-keep and then gently get them so they were diving. That’s so different now… The last three expeditions we had in Turkey were run by woman divers, and so that’s a huge change.
In fact, our current president now—who is a former student of mine, Deborah Carlson—is doing an excavation in Sri Lanka.
Scut: How has the sea changed you? What has it taught you?
Dr. GB: It’s very big. When you’re looking for wrecks, it’s very big.
We’ve got clues to some wrecks that we just can’t find. The sponge divers in the early 20th century brought objects up from them—we have vague descriptions of where they were, but we haven’t been able to find them. You always have to have a diver come with you to point and say, “Here’s where it was.”
Scut: Do you or have you spent much of your spare time on the water?
Dr. GB: Not particularly. My dad bought a sailboat when I was growing up in high school in the 1940s, and I remember it very unpleasantly as something you had to be scraping all the time, and painting and varnishing—to me it was just a big bore. I wasn’t like some of my Annapolis friends who had their little Moth boats and used to race them. I always liked swimming, but nothing special.
The widow of my French friend Claude Duthuit—he was the grandson of Henri Matisse, the French painter—is pretty rich, because she just gave us two million dollars to build a new ship, designed just for us. It’s being designed in Houston by a naval architecture firm I’ve been talking to, and it’ll probably be built in Turkey. We have a little campus in Turkey now.
The wreck in Uluburun, the one that has the oldest book and the little goddess, I turned over to Cemal Pulak when he was still a graduate to direct, just as I had directed a wreck when I was a graduate student. He did it brilliantly—it was the deepest anyone has ever worked on air, without any mixed gasses. It was 145-200 feet deep, and we put in 22,500 dives—mostly by students who had just learned to dive. It runs like military clockwork, we’ve really got it down very nicely. We don’t want to leave anything to chance.
Scut: No adventures, huh? Do have a favorite piece of gear, a tool, or some commonplace technology that you’ve liked to rely on, that you would like to recommend? For diving or anything on the sea?
Dr. GB: I have to say I’m old-fashioned enough that when I went and made this 50th anniversary dive—that was almost as scary as the time I almost drowned. Our insurance and the university rules demand that we use all this new equipment, which is a backpack with four different things coming off of it. We were diving in a very heavy current, and it was like I had a parachute behind me pulling me backwards—it was hard to swim against it. I can always recognize myself in photographs because my legs don’t get cold, so I just wore a wetsuit jacket, a knife strapped to my leg, a weight belt, and a pair of doubles on my back—without a buoyancy compensator. I felt like a fish—I felt like I could do anything underwater. Well, it’s not like that anymore. I don’t like all this stuff you have to put on.
Scut: What’s your favorite book about the ocean?
Dr. GB: I don’t have one. I’ve really enjoyed the book Deep Water, Ancient Ships, because of all the statistics. We’ve talked about diving, the ocean, and the sea and so I hope what I’m going to say now is just like what I said about the library: to me, diving—although I enjoy it immensely and I’m very sad that I’ll never dive again because I felt like I was so free underwater—to me it was like driving a Jeep to get to my work site. It was just a way of getting there. I never got over a slight nervousness if we were in a storm. I crossed the Atlantic twenty seven times in a ship before I ever flew across it.
Scut: Wow. So, what’s next for you?
Dr. GB: I’ve given it up on everything besides helping design this new ship. I don’t travel easily because of these strokes, so I don’t plan to ever go back to Turkey. I might go for the launching of the ship, but that would be a dream come true—to be able to walk on the deck of it.
(Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology)
Scut: Where has been your favorite area or site to dive and study?
Dr. GB: Almost all my work has been in Turkey, because that’s where I started. We know a lot of wrecks there—we know about 200 ancient ones just along a small part of the coast because of annual surveys. We only excavate a wreck if we find that it can teach us something unique that we don’t know already. We’re always looking for one of a different century, for example. And so far, we’re not doing too badly. We’ve found wrecks of the 16th, 14th, 13th, 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. And 4th or 5th, 7th, 10th 11th and 16th centuries A.D. in Turkey. We’re always looking to fill in gaps in our knowledge.
Scut: It’s really astonishing to me to imagine—first and foremost—coming across these 3000+ year-old wrecks, and secondly holding them in your hands at the surface.
(Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology/Herb Greer)
Dr. GB: I miss all that. But what I really miss now, physically, is the companionship. We have this small, ex-U.S. Army T-boat which was designed for use in rivers and harbors, calm water—it wasn’t designed for the open sea at all. It’s 65’ long—sealed—it was a little lighter for carrying smaller cargo out to bigger ships and loading them. It’s so small that it’s very crowded, and when we’d all eat, we were all jammed up in the little galley—knees to knees. I miss that really great companionship with a dozen people. We got very close—such good friendships.
(Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology/Tufan Turanli)
Dr. George Bass is currently living at his home in Texas, from where he’s designing a state-of-the-art research vessel with the help the widow of his late great friend Claude Duthuit. Visit the Institute of Nautical Archaeology website for more information the father of underwater archaeology and his expansive career.