Friday, October 2, 2009

AIA Lecture #1: Underwater Archaeology

I have seen a few movies that portray underwater archaeology and I know that what we see in movies is more often than not a complete fabrication. Knowing that this is the case, I was surprised at how exciting the real life of an underwater archaeologist is. Listening to Eric Wartenweiler Smith, professional diver and underwater explorer, speak about his experiences in Egypt, the Philippines, Florida, and all over the world. Through out the talk, he spoke about the discovery of Cleopatra’s palace which he was involved in, the lost city of Heraklion, and shipwrecks all over the world. Most of the readings we have done in class and general knowledge about archaeology focus mainly on sites and artifacts found on land and under ground. But of course it seems obvious that over the years, through both shipwrecks and movement of the earth that a great number of artifacts are laying just beneath the waves. Taking Alexandria as an example, the movement of tectonic plates and gradual sinking of the sea floor has created a veritable treasure trove of artifacts. The sea floor is completely covered in amphora and in some areas not even 15 feet deep artifacts can be found that haven’t seen the surface in over 2,000 years.

Some of the most interesting things that Smith spoke about were new technology that has been developed to scan for underwater artifacts. Metal detectors, and submarines have long been used for underwater exploration, but as technology as progressed over the years, scanning has become more advanced and the use of computers has put most of the information into digital format. One of Smith’s most recent ventures is being a part of Aqua Survey Inc. a company that uses technology to develop better metal detectors and scanners. Their “mud sled” is able to find objects buried nearly four and half feet deep in clay. Not only can it be used for archaeology purposes, but also to find bombs and mines that were discarded over the years and can pose a threat to people and the environment.

I have never before wanted to try scuba diving, and really haven’t spent much time under the water, with the exception of a few snorkeling trips. Seeing how these divers worked and what they could accomplish for the first time made me curious about diving for the first time. Learning about all the equipment and techniques of salvage and restoration of the artifacts was interesting, as was learning about the risks of diving. I would never have guessed that statues had to be soaked in fresh water for years before they could be displayed. Division of goods and findings was also fascinating. To hear that in some countries they expect 50% of all findings and that others allow you to show the artifacts but return them to their native land created a whole new perception for me about treasure hunting and archaeology.

Sitting in the auditorium, I barely wanted to take notes on the lecture. All I wanted to do was to sit and listen to his stories about the amazing things he has discovered during his career. The slideshow of pictures took my breath away. Crystal clear images of ancient Egyptian artifacts; a perfectly preserved stella, a sphinx that has stood guard at Cleopatra’s sanctuary since being washed off her island years ago. It is amazing that after so many years that these objects haven’t been obliterated by the surf, sand, or the countless boats that use the harbor. These discoveries have only come to the surface in the past twenty years, and with continuing advances in technology we can guarantee that more are sure to come.

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