George Bass, Archaeologist of the Ocean Floor, Dies at 88


George F. Bass, who was often called the father of underwater archaeology, scouring shipwrecks for revelatory artifacts and developing new techniques for exploring the ocean, died on March 2 at 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 scuba tank and dived to the seabed of the Mediterranean. He went on to find bronze ingots 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 up a new field for archaeology, one that seemed to him as limitless as the Seven Seas.

Excavation of shipwrecks could provide not only “the ultimate histories of watercraft,” he later wrote, but also “the ultimate histories of virtually everything ever made by humans.”

Professor Bass led or co-directed archaeological 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, mostly likely the remains of a royal vessel, could be dated to within a few years of 1,300 B.C., the end of the Bronze Age and the era of the Trojan War and King Tut. It carried an opulent cargo — items like hippopotamus ivory, a golden scarab bearing Queen Nefertiti’s name (the only one ever found) and what is believed to be the oldest wooden writing tablet ever discovered.

Professor Bass wrote that the Uluburun ship cast new light “on the histories of literacy, trade, ideas, metallurgy, metrology, art, music, religion, and international relations, as well as for fields as diverse as Homeric studies and Egyptology.”

The historical value of sunken treasure began to be recognized at the turn of the 20th century, when Greeks diving for sponge encountered a shipwreck carrying, among other goods, a magnificent ancient Greek bronze statue of a young man known as the Antikythera Youth. But sustained archaeological work under the sea was not feasible until 1943, when the oceanographers Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emil Gagnan invented the aqualung.

Early on, archaeologists who sought to take advantage of the aqualung remained aboveground, relying on reports from hired divers, who lacked archaeological expertise. Professor Bass took a more hands-on approach. He became the first archaeologist to do his own diving while supervising other divers. And he organized on-site training in underwater excavation methods for fellow archaeologists and students.

With help from scientists he recruited for his teams, he engineered new methods for removing artifacts from the seabed and for spending long periods underwater. One crucial early insight was that objects that look like rocks may actually be the corroded remnants of metal goods. Professor Bass X-rayed what he found interesting. If a rocklike object contained an inner cavity where a metal artifact used to be, he would pour epoxy inside and cast a replacement.

His excavations produced illuminating material about ancient shipbuilding. His first expedition, off Cape Gelidonya in Turkey, solved a puzzle about why Homer refers to brushwood on Odysseus’s ship. The remains of a sunken ship there revealed that brushwood had been used as a cushion for heavy cargo to protect the hull.

Deborah Carlson, the president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, which Professor Bass helped create and then ran for much of his life, ultimately in Texas, said he deserved to be considered the founder of the field.

“Under his direction, ancient shipwrecks were excavated underwater for the first time,” she said in a phone interview. “He did it by taking his archaeological training and putting on scuba gear and taking the excavation to a new dimension.”

In his lectures, Professor Bass was fond of telling audiences about the ancientness of sea travel — which he said humans had developed before farming, shepherding or metalworking — and about the infinitude of shipwrecks to be discovered.

“We will never run out of worthy sites,” he wrote in “Beneath the Seven Seas” (2005), a book that chronicles his career. “Hundreds of ships have sunk in Aegean storms in a single day. We cannot calculate the number of wrecks in that one sea.”

George Fletcher Bass was born on Dec. 9, 1932, in Columbia, S.C. His father, Robert, was an English professor and popular historian, and his mother, Virginia (Wauchope) Bass, edited anthologies of poems. After his father took a teaching position at the Naval Academy, George grew up in Annapolis. He later joined the military himself, serving as a lieutenant in a communications unit based in postwar Korea.

After being honorably discharged in the late 1950s, he pursued a Ph.D. in classical archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. At the time, an American photojournalist named Peter Throckmorton was researching Turkish sponge divers and learned that they knew of ancient artifacts on the ocean floor. Mr. Throckmorton wrote to the renowned archaeologist Rodney Young seeking sponsorship for a proper excavation. Professor Young turned to one of his graduate students who specialized in the Bronze Age and had enthusiastically read accounts of deep sea dives — George Bass.

Mr. Bass was less than fully prepared. He had time for only six weeks of a 10-week diving course at a Philadelphia Y.M.C.A. And before joining the expedition and diving 100 feet into the Mediterranean, he had tried on a tank just once and gone no deeper than 10 feet — in a pool. Yet that first trip became the foundation for the rest of his career.

“You have to be young and ignorant and naïve to get anywhere,” he reflected in a 2010 interview with the Penn Museum.

He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and became a professor there in 1964. Though tenured, he left his position in 1973 to form, with his colleagues J. Richard Steffy and Michael L. Katzev, an independent institute devoted to nautical archaeology.

Professor Bass and his wife — he had married Ann Singletary in 1960 — sold their house, car and furniture and, with their two sons, moved to Cyprus. Their stay was short-lived. When Turkey invaded in 1974 in a struggle with Greece over control over the island, the Basses fled in the middle of the night.

Texas A&M University, in College Station, offered to house Professor Bass’s institute and make him and his colleagues members of the faculty. Now known as the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, it has excavated dozens of shipwrecks across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Professor Bass’s early research helped put in motion the establishment of Turkey’s Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, which today is one of the premier 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 perceived the greatest threat to his work as coming from treasure hunters hoping to treat artifacts as booty. He called them “destructive of our search for knowledge of the past.”

“It is relatively simple to find and salvage antiques or antiquities,” he said. “It is what happens to those antiques or antiquities later that makes their recovery part of archaeology.”

Source : Nytimes