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Fifty Years of Shipwreck Excavation Opens New Windows on History

2010 marks the 50th anniversary of George Bass’s first-ever submarine mapping and excavation of a complete shipwreck and the dawn of modern underwater archaeology.

By Fabio Esteban Amador

Transoceanic explorers throughout time have traveled in relatively fragile vessels, often carrying their personal belongings, items that reflect who they are and where they are from.

Their ships transported resources, tools, knowledge and technologies. They traveled near and far, reaching across the blue horizon, discovering new lands, claiming natural wonders and even civilizations.

Our ancestors viewed the oceans as the means to reach the unknown and all its fortunes, but the oceans were not always easily traveled and from time to time they unleashed their temper on the vessels and maritime peoples who suffered its plunder.

So, if our planet is mostly covered by the oceans then the oceans may hold thousands of sites, artifacts, ships, and histories of peoples and civilizations that had a unique interaction and relation to the sea.

This potential archaeology was inaccessible for a long time and beyond anyone’s imagination. However, it was just a matter of time before a unique and inspiring individual came along and began the age of underwater archaeology.

George Bass, a University of Pennsylvania archaeology graduate student, was asked in 1960 if he would be interested in studying a Late Bronze Age shipwreck off the coast of Turkey. “I had never dived except once in a YMCA swimming pool before leaving for Turkey in 1960,” George explains. His desire to explore and document the ocean’s floor became the foundation for what now is the field of underwater and maritime archaeology.

Dating to over 3,000 years old, the first shipwreck studied by George Bass was at the time the oldest ship ever found. His research at Cape Gelidonya would be like none that came before–it would literally change our notions of archaeology and the ocean forever.

01 1960 Beach camp in foreground, Cape Gelidonya in distance.jpg

George Bass’s 1960 beach camp with the two sponge boats from which the team dived moored just offshore. The wreck lies an hour’s sail away between two of the islands in the distance.

Photo by Peter Throckmorton courtesy of INA

It was the first-ever underwater mapping and excavation of an ancient shipwreck in its entirety on the seafloor. At the end of the excavation, and with permission from the Turkish government, George Bass started a museum of underwater archaeology in the Bodrum castle; it is now Turkey’s most visited archaeological museum.

05 1960 Ann Bass sees honeymoon tent.jpg

Ann Bass sees where she will spend her three-month honeymoon.

Photo by Peter Throckmorton courtesy of INA


Peter Dorrell, George Bass, Peter Throckmorton, and Honor Frost (from left to right) work on the site plan in the camp.

Photo by Herb Greer courtesy of INA

07 1960 George and Peter.jpg

Peter Throckmorton (left) and George Bass examine artifacts from the shipwreck.

Photo by Herb Greer courtesy of INA 


Excavators dived twice a day, for 40 minutes in the morning and 28 minutes in the afternoon, decompressing, as seen here, at the end of each dive. 

Photo courtesy of INA


Claude Duthuit prepares to dive with an early model underwater metal detector. 

Photo courtesy of INA

This summer, marking the 50th anniversary of this important first step in underwater archaeology, George Bass and the only other two survivors of the original Cape Gelidonya excavation team, Claude Duthuit and Waldemar Illing, dived once more on the wreck.

This time, however, the expedition brought sophisticated equipment, which helped uncover well-preserved artifacts such as ceramics and metal objects that were not detected before. The new finds add important and fundamental details of the ship, its builders, its cargo, its point of origin and its purpose in the Mediterranean circa 1200 B.C.

After 50 yrs Gelidonya_Harun Ozdas (22).xJPG.jpg

From left to right, Waldemar Illing, George Bass (in underwater telephone booth), and Claude Duthuit return to the site of the Bronze Age shipwreck at Cape Gelidonya after 50 years.

Photo by Harun Özdaş

George, Wlady, Claude After 50 yrs Gelidonya_Harun Ozdas (7).jpg

On a boulder that lies at the wreck site, from left to right, George Bass, Waldemar Illing, and Claude Duthuit celebrate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of modern shipwreck archaeology.

Photo by Harun Özdaş 

National Geographic Society’s Mission Programs have played an important role in the development of underwater archaeology by providing funding for exploratory research since the 1960s. National Geographic media have published numerous articles and iconic photographs of great discoveries. “The Society has helped fund every shipwreck excavation I have conducted since then. So the Society has played a huge role in the development of modern nautical archaeology–indeed, without the Society’s support I cannot guess where the field would be today,” said George in a recent interview.

NGS In the Field.jpg

The Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE) helped fund George’s return to the Gelidonya shipwreck site.

So what is the future of underwater archaeology, I asked the father of the discipline. “The future of underwater archaeology is vast. Everything people ever made, from tiny bits of jewelry to the massive stone members of temples, cathedrals, and even the pyramids, was carried at one time or another by water–and watercraft have always had a bad habit of sinking! Thus, water holds the remains of entire histories of what humans have made over the millennia,” George said.

George Bass has been a leading scientist in dozens of underwater archaeological studies around the world and is credited with being the “father” of underwater archaeology. He also founded the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, and he remains a leader in underwater research, exploration, and conservation. A three-part film, “Nautical Archaeology: The Beginnigs 1960-1962,” captures the youth of the explorers, their enthusiasm, and the origins of this great discipline.


Fabio Esteban Amador is the program officer for the NGS/Waitt Grants Program at National Geographic and an associate research professor of anthropology at George Washington University. He is an archaeologist specializing in Mesoamerican cultures and Pre-Columbian and historic earthen architecture. Amador studied archaeology at Rutgers University and received a Ph.D. from SUNY Buffalo. He has worked in archaeological sites in North, Central, and South America and is presently conducting research in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Before joining National Geographic, he was a professor of archaeology and a researcher for the Council for Scientific Investigation at the National University of El Salvador.

Read Fabio Esteban Amador’s blog posts

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  1. Odalys
    La Habana
    January 20, 2014, 5:19 pm

    Hi Fabio
    I hope you write me some day