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Daniel Lenihan  

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Underwater Archaeology; Nautical Archaeology  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
13 May 1999

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NPR/NGS RADIO EXPEDITIONS
Show: Geographic Century
Log of DAT #: Daniel Lenihan
Date: 5-13-99

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DS 1:29
Ok- your name and what you do.

DL 1:33
I¿m Dan Lenihan and I¿m the chief of the Park Service¿s Submerged Cultural Resources Unit¿essentially it¿s the arm of the Department of the Interior that heads underwater historic preservation

¿technical tinkering¿

DS 2:35
You were saying it was part of the Department of Interior¿

DL 2:39
Right, the National Park Service is the historic preservation agency in the government..and, so this unit, the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, is essentially the underwater archaeological arm of the Park Service, and the main standing team for conducting underwater research in the government.

DS 3:04
How long have you been doing it?

DL 3:07
I started with the Park Service as a park ranger/archaeologist in ¿72 and took over as program manager for this sort of thing in about 1975.

DS 3:21
Is your academic background in archaeology?

DL 3:25
Well, it¿s in anthropology, which is in this country, is the.. is essentially the foundation or the mother field for archaeology.

DS 3:38
Let¿s talk about terminology- is there a difference between nautical archaeology and
underwater archaeology and marine archaeology?

DL 3:51
Yeah, there¿s essentially, the¿ probably the easiest thing to do is talk in the generality of underwater archaeology because that¿s the.. that kind of encompasses everything.. it¿s taking a methodology, you know, a series of technologies, and applying them to archaeology, which is what makes it¿is what makes it special. Now you have people that are such as George Bass, that are classical archaeologists, they apply their, you know, those technologies to sites in the Mediterranean or that sort of thing, and there are people who emphasize nautical sites, maritime sites, maritime archaeology, and there are those who would emphasize working on prehistoric sites in the United States, and those wouldn¿t fit in any of those categories except underwater archaeology.

DS 4:55
Like the project going on at the Oscilla River in Florida¿

DL 4:59
Correct, that¿d be that sort of project and the work that went on in the Warminal Springs, Little Salt in Florida, the early archaic man stuff and that sort of thing.

DS 5:12
How did underwater archaeology get started?

DL 5:16
Well, that¿s a real, pretty complicated question, but I would suppose¿

DS 5:23
It¿s a freshman question.

DL 5:28
Well, the roots of underwater archaeology come out of essentially anthropology and history, and anthropology pretty much comes out of the work done, probably the mid 19th century, anything that came from Laelle and the evolutionists like Darwin that followed him that..the science of looking for patterned behavior to human activities and how that carried on over time. Now, how it really developed in the..after that into underwater archaeology was the melding of technologies with the general pursuit of the past. Probably the first examples that I can think of right off hand would come, would date back to like 1907 where you had Edward Thompson at the well of Chichen Itza, and a sacrificial well there in the excavations that he did. It was, of course, something that you would have to look at in the context of the times, but it certainly was some of the first real attempts made to apply that technology underwater for the purposes of reconstructing history. Now you had¿

DS 6:56
Edward Thompson didn¿t have scuba¿

DL 6:59
No, but he had a hard hat. He was working with the hard brass helmets people associate with deep sea diving and he went through the tremendous adventure of having that carted through the Yucatan on the backs of donkeys to Chichen Itza and actually executing dives.. I know a little bit about that because I worked as a stunt diver once in a docudrama that the BBC did that covered that particular operation. But the, you know and after that, you had archaeologists gradually becoming more and more interested or associated with or clued into the fact that there was history underwater. There was work done in the York River in the 1930s around what is now Colonial Historical Park in Virginia and on shipwrecks there was work that took place after that, in the 50s and 60s after the invention of the aqualung, which more popularized it, and for a while, you had, there was the input or the association with marine salvors in removing antiquities from the bottom which was often confused with archaeology¿ that kind of melange has provided the background for then some of the first scientific applications which came through George Bass.

DS 8:50
It was a while before nautical archaeology was taken seriously¿

DL 9:02
I would say that it was a while before underwater archaeology was taken seriously by some and it still is dealing with problems with being taken seriously, even at the turn of the millennium

DS 9:20
Why is that?

DL 9:22
Well, there¿s a number of reasons. Maybe I could divert for a minute to talk about George and his contributions and maybe I can explain why I think that it¿s had this sort of problems. I think that essentially, I think that essentially the real contribution that George made was that as early as the 1960s, he demonstrated that there really wasn¿t any excuse for carrying out substandard archaeological sites just because they were underwater. I think the positive effects of that is that it raised the bar on the expectations for the standard practice from professional archaeologists on sites if they happened to be underwater and it also demystified the conduct of undersea archaeology as being something only marine salvors or treasure hunters could do. I think George deserves a lot of credit for that.

DS 10:28
The producer wants you to take a drink.

DL 10:45
You, know essentially, I think there is, what happened is you have George raising the bar in the 60s and when he did that, people started taking underwater archaeology more seriously in the profession, and more importantly, even in the general public, and some of that was due to the help of institutions like the National Geographic. Unfortunately, I don¿t think that this lesson has taken very well in some areas, maybe the most disappointing aspect of that to me right now, or the place that I¿it¿s institutions like National Geographic that are really part of the problem at this point¿this latest issue showed a level of sophistication in the area of underwater archaeology, which to me,
harked back to the mid 50s and 60s as if (mispronounced Bass) Bass and many others who¿ve been working in this field had never done what they did.

DS 11:46
What article are you talking about?

DL 11:51
There¿s the mixture, or the.. there¿s a problem with organizations with the clout and the class of National Geographic reaching so many people that keep on perpetuating this lack of a dichotomy between treasure salvage and archaeology. I think particularly, in this latest article, what I found particularly offensive was the editorial, in which there were some condescending remarks made by Bill Allen that were off-handed and made it sound, it was the sort of thing would have expected to hear from antiquity harvesters years ago, that I think even the salvors had better developed arguments than this. I believe it lowered the bar for what George had raised in the 60s.

DS 13:02
Which article was that?

DL 13:04
This is one on the salvage of the Widow.

DS 13:07
I haven¿t read it. IT is disappointing to hear you say that. That¿s one of the distinctions I hope to make in this piece- is that your main issue with it?

DL 13:49
The fact that it was covered at all and that there are so many really worthy projects out there that aren¿t is what bothers me. I think the problem with face in this field right now is from the media, is from documentarians who are essentially using the old formulas, they¿re not taking time, there is a lot of lazy coverage going on out there, which I think really hurts what can be a very confusing field, and this is a very formative time internationally. This is a time when you have UNESCO looking at developing international conventions, and have organizations with the prestige of National Geographic come out with articles, and from really I don¿t think very well thought out statements from the editor like this is harmful.

DS 14:44
You¿re saying that is trivializes the field of underwater archaeology?

DL 14:52
Trivializes, yes. It trivializes the field and it perpetuates myths that there is..there is a standing myth that it takes someone who is a treasure salvor to find and get to sites and that the archaeologist should be really happy to piggyback on that sort of an operation. This basically isn¿t true. The technologies are there, they can be used and accessed by people who have the money and if one keeps on legitimizing and authenticating what people do who are taking these materials for profit, then there..and selling collections and doing that sort of thing, then it¿s doing no help to the field. These sites are a heck of a lot better off lying right where they are until they are worked on correctly than being harvested right now.

DS 15:56
What is it about treasure hunters that is bad for these sites?

DL 16:08
Well, the motivation is what¿s bad for the sites because that ultimately defines the methodology and it¿s not that the treasure hunters themselves are doing something illegal or immoral or any of that. It¿s the fact that the society is letting them do that and usually only letting them do that in underwater environments when they would never even consider letting them do that on land. Just think back to how the historic preservation laws developed in the United States, you- if you go and dig in a member¿s sites in the Southwest right now and they put the handcuffs on and you explain to the judge, ¿Well, I put an awful lot of effort into getting that bulldozer and digging up the site and put a lot of investment into it,¿ it¿s not going to help you very much. But when it¿s in the context of what happens off shore, then it seems to be part of the good old boy American myth. You know this is..and the activity, you know there is no way that one is going to responsibly do underwater archaeology with that being the motive. It¿s too expensive, it¿s too time consuming, and it needs a commitment that is more than how much you can make

DS 17:35
What is it that suffers? What is it that is so time consuming?

DL 17:41
Well, the process of¿remember that you have something that is a powerful archaeological site in itself, a shipwreck, which in many senses is maybe the most powerful type of site, which is either cause for¿is something that can be discussed separately. And you have that lying in sediments underwater, after it¿s gone through a curve of deterioration. In other words, a ship is in transit, it sinks, it goes through what archaeologists would call a site formation process. In other words, it starts to disintegrate. After a period of time, it¿s very clear that they achieve a certain balance. The curve is one which is steep at first and then gets flatter later. These ships are then much better off right where they are, in terms of after they¿ve been sedimented over, after they¿ve been essentially gone through the major traumatic process of wrecking, they¿re much better where they are than they are being extracted without the greatest of care. The greatest of care is expensive.

DS 19:02
What does that entail?

DL 19:06
What does what entail?

DS 19:08
The greatest of care¿what are you talking about?

DL 19:11
Well, if you¿re to¿to give you an example, the shipwrecks that are off the Atlantic Coast, be they the Widow, be they the ones that are in the.. off of Florida. In almost all of cases, they¿re under heavy sediment loads. Removing the sediment is a process that can be done either with the equivalent of dynamite and a bulldozer on land, or it¿s one that can be done with a more painstaking processes. If you use the more invasive and aggressive processes, like prop-wash deflectors moving through sites, you end up with very well-preserved silver and gold. It makes nice pictures for the magazine, you can hold them up and make some inductive comments about the importance of them and how historically interesting they are, and say some scientific words like stratigraphy here and there and put it..kind of pan this off as archaeology, but it¿s not. The¿what archaeology is is retrieving the context along with the materials- that takes time. And time is not something that treasure hunters and people who traffic in antiquities are going to take a lot of when that¿s not their goal. The motivation isn¿t there for the history. Also the collections are often what are used to finance the doing of the work if salvors are involved. If the artifacts¿ involved, it means you¿re usually splitting and selling collections. If it¿s not the artifacts, then it¿s the fact that you have people, and this is the way most of them are financed, by the way, is not the artifacts, but by setting up corporations in which you have shareholders, and they have to be gratified in some way.

DS 21:23
You mentioned context- why is that important?

DL 21:47
If you merely run a prop-washer, if you merely run a prop-wash deflector through a site, which is a standard procedure of treasure hunters, you will retrieve in not bad condition some of the, much of the precious materials. What you lose is the relationships those artifacts have to each other, that it would be vertically and horizontally, and that really tells you a great deal about the story of the site. Even the stains that might be in the associated sediment, which you should have been carefully documenting, which indicated that two metals were in association with each other, that there was a breakdown of wood, that there was different chemical processes that took place, it¿s a demanding science and it¿s not a grab-bag sort of an enterprise, which is what it deteriorates into with the treasure hunting.

DS 22:51
That¿s why this field of archaeology is important- because they¿re kind of snapshots.

DL 23:04
I think a lot of people have used the word ¿time capsule.¿ And I think that although that¿s a reasonably good term and it does convey some of the importance of shipwrecks, what it misses is the fact that beyond being just a time capsule, it¿s a synchronic snapshot sort of of a culture at a particular period of time, and when you compare those with others from the same parent culture, it can be a very powerful tool anthropologically. That might be going into a bit more academic than you want to hear.

DS 23:54
What about sport divers?

DL 24:05
I think ultimately¿I think ultimately sport divers have negative impacts on some sites as do archaeologists for that matter and as do treasure hunters. In the¿I put them in a very different class, sport divers, than I do treasure hunters, in that I see them as a much more important constituency. These are people who are part of the whole, they are part of the society that really owns those sites. I think there are proper ways to provide access to sport divers to those sites and that if we don¿t do that, we¿re preventing them from appreciating a history and coming in contact with it in a very special way. I think it is incumbent upon organizations like the National Park Service and the states to make sure that sport divers do have access to as many shipwrecks as possible, but they should try to control their treatment of those resources. It¿s the same as it would be on land. These are nonrenewable resources. It¿s an old saw, perhaps, to keep reminding people of that, but you can¿t take the last two shipwrecks, mate them, and regenerate the species. Once they¿re gone, they¿re gone.

DS 25:44
So you¿re saying that there¿s the possibility of détente between sport divers and archaeologists but not between archaeologists and treasure hunters¿

DL 25:57
I would say in a nutshell that that¿s correct. You can modify it here and there or I could come up with caveats, but in the final analysis, that¿s true. An there are sport diving societies in existence today that have codes of ethics toward preserving shipwreck sites that are considerably stronger than many agencies and certainly some of the media which presents them and in some cases even stronger codes of ethics than the archaeological societies.

DS 26:36
You would discourage any coverage of the work of treasure hunters?

DL 26:45
That¿s right. The point is, there is so much good work going on and what¿.Why legitimize efforts which are in the long run are presenting a precedent which is an unhealthy one. There is a¿an example¿

DS 27:12
Stop and scoot back from the mic.

DL 27:44
Let me give you one example, and that is walking into a store in Key West that is selling artifacts and these are artifacts that are taken from shipwrecks, and part of the way, part of where they get their authenticity, and part of why they can get more money for selling these artifacts, is they¿re authenticated by the involvement with the state. Now this is not something that¿s peculiar to Florida only, this occurs in a number of states, and it seems to me very questionable stewardship of underwater history to essentially be tacitly taking part in the process of seeing it taken apart by antiquity harvesters.

DS 28:37
I presume you¿re talking about Mel Fisher here.

DL 28:40
Well, it doesn¿t have, in this particular case, it could be Mel Fisher or there¿s others beside Mel Fisher in Florida who are doing that sort of thing, and I don¿t see the individuals. In some ways, the Mel Fishers and the treasure salvors, and the people who are directly involved in the doing which directly results in the destruction, I probably have some of the least personal antipathy for. I mean, they¿re, they¿ve done what they, they¿ve been very clear about their motives and what they¿re up to. I¿m more bothered by the, essentially bureaucracies that allow this to go on and people in my own profession which will associate with them and legitimize to some degree what they¿re doing.

DS 29:38
Let¿s talk about George Bass. Put him into context in the field. What will he be remembered for?

DL 29:58
OK, if you don¿t mind my repeating myself. I¿d say that the greatest contribution of George Bass to the profession is that, as early as the 60s, he raised the standard, he raised the bar, he set standards for doing archaeology underwater, which demonstrated that there weren¿t any really good excuses for people to go down and just grab it up. That had two good effects: one, it was a lesson to the profession of archaeology, it was..it demonstrated that archaeologists didn¿t have an excuse for not doing it right, and it also demystified it as something that only treasure hunters or treasure salvors could do¿and that was the real important contribution I think that George made.

DS 30:50
Have you ever been out with him?

DL 30:52
No. I have, you know, remember George is a classical archaeologist and does very little in the New World. There are people in his institution which are doing some work in the New World, but George has very little personal, I think, interest in what happens in the Americas.

DS 31:19
But you know him from conferences?

DL 31:23
Yes, yes. And I also have some real differences of opinion with him too.

DS 31:30
Can you paint a word picture of what he looks like?

DL 31:35
Well, George is a jolly-looking fellow, that has a certain resemblance to perhaps St. Nick with a receding hairline, and is twinkle in the eye, and kind of broadcasts intelligence and a capability of winning people over with charm. I think he¿s an articulate man that has, which has helped quite a bit in the impact he¿s had on the field. You know, besides what he knows, the fact that he¿s a true, trained classical archaeologist, he¿s also personable, and he has a way with crowds and with people and is articulate.

DS 32:35
You mentioned some differences you have with him scientifically.

DL 32:40
Well, I suppose my basic, or the basic not-so-positive influence George has had on the field of underwater archaeology is that he¿s a classical archaeologist. He¿s always been a bit of a fish-out-of-water interacting with the American anthropological community. I think he¿s made some inelegant statements defending his way of doing archaeology from people who aren¿t even attacking him to begin with. Primarily, arguing against research designs as being restrictive and then George offers anecdotal reasons why you can get so much from complete excavations and all excavations should be complete and research designs are unnecessary because he simply¿they conducted observations. He sees research designs are hampering people. I think that is really not well-taken by the scientific/anthropological community and it¿s made for some, probably there¿s a lot of good talent that could¿ve gotten into this field from that particular source which because of these differences in perspective, some of them which I think were merely personal reactions of George to grant proposals and the like which were turned down because of research designs which is very unfortunate. You know, if there weren¿t research designs, for instance, you wouldn¿t have penicillin, computers, museums of natural history, any of that stuff. It doesn¿t restrict anybody, what it does is it simply makes for a discipline that you have to ask certain questions and then you let the site speak to you like it does to him.

DS 34:38
You¿re saying that he would prefer just to go in and dig it up and figure it out later, while you would prefer to have a careful design with the limits of what you¿re going to do and leave some unexcavated?

DL 34:56
That¿s the basic difference, but it¿this doesn¿t translate out to my, don¿t interpret this as my saying, ¿Therefore, George does inferior work.¿ That is not at all what I¿m saying. What I¿m saying is it is totally a difference in approach and he should have more respect for the scientific practitioners who employ research designs and, in the long run, it¿s really a superior way to go unless you have people who are particularly gifted, such as George doing every single excavation on every single site, and even in that case it would have been better. I can paint for you¿perhaps this is the point. George, I think, was offended by the anthropological community in the United States at times, for, because he was criticized in some of his proposals for not meeting those particular requirements, the research design issues. Now, it¿s understandable why. Sometimes the reasons might have been not very good, and he certainly can look at the returns from a site, if you excavate a site totally, you better have some good inductive comments to make about the site afterwards, or you would, that¿s an awful lot of information that¿s being put in front of you. He sees them as restrictive, and I think that¿s kind of silly. A research design, used correctly, is used to focus your work, to meet the obligation to the rest of the profession and to the world, that you are going down to disturb a nonrenewable resource and you have your act together, you are going to act some of the basic questions that really speak to work that has been done before, and that as you proceed into the excavation, doing the work, of course as you find different things, you go through the same process he would inductively and you would make discoveries and you would change the design. These are supposed to be malleable, changeable sorts of things.

DS 37:30
And leave something for a future archaeologist to come by¿

DL 37:34
And the second issue is over the total site archaeology. He is a great proponent of total site archaeology, although I¿m not sure he¿s ever excavated a site totally. The¿on principle, I think it¿s not a good idea because there¿s always some procedures and ways of approaching the site that in most cases, it makes it a lot more elegant to go into portions of a site, excavate it, find everything that you could have found from the research design and then anything that your imagination and your skill as an archaeologist can offer to really develop what you found and leave for the future areas that you haven¿t excavated. And it has one real big advantage besides the fact that it¿s focused and well thought out and demonstrably intense. You aren¿t saddled with as many artifacts to have to go through the preservation process as you would have ordinarily.

DS 38:50
Would you say that¿s the future of underwater archaeology?

DL 38:58
I think that¿s the future of all archaeology. It¿s been pretty widely demonstrated in the United States that that¿s¿that general philosophy was adopted in the mid 70s in the American archaeological community and it¿s one that just has a lot to be argued for. I mean, it has a lot going for it.

DS 39:24
Many people think there¿s not much left on the face of the Earth to discover. I gather that¿s not true underwater.

DL 39:35
There¿s a great deal to be discovered underwater, and a lot of it is right in the territorial waters of the United States. There is a lot of it that¿s still in our own backyards without even getting to the venture of what¿s out in the very deep sea.

DS 40:00
What is in the U.S. that will be found in the next 10-20 years?

DL 40:19
Well, in the U.S., I would say that a very tiny percentage of the shipwrecks that have gone down on either of our coast have been found or, in any systematic way, studied. There are some vessels which are even exposed and we know very little about them. Some of the architecture closest to us in time is less well-known than periods that George is working on in the Mediterranean, vessels that are a couple thousand years old. Part of the reason for that is that George was more successful in getting some of those sorts of projects very well-funded and systematic projects underway in the Mediterranean well before they were taking place here.

DS 41:24
Did you say 200-year-old wrecks in American waters?

DL 41:29
No, I¿m sorry. The comparison I¿m making is this: I¿m saying that sometimes we have this myopia, sometimes we have this sense that things that are nearer to us in history are somehow less valuable, that we know less about them, and that simply isn¿t the case. There are in many cases vessels in the Mediterranean during certain periods that are the classical people are working on are better understood in terms of architecture and what they were doing, what they were carrying, than whole classes of vessels that exist in the New World, which essentially, I¿m talking about historic sites in the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

DS 42:19
Are there more treasure ships to be discovered?

DL 42:24
Well, it depends what you call treasure. I think, to me, the treasure is the story, the treasure¿s the archaeology. Unfortunately, there is an association between treasure and underwater archaeology to that point that most of the Spanish maritime culture in, for instance, Florida waters is gone. People have run prop-wash deflectors. It¿s like putting history through a blender. And in many cases, these sites had absolutely nothing to do with treasure, but there was the thought that treasure could be associated with them, which entered, which is what contributed to their demise. Whether there are treasure ships left, yeah, sure there are treasure ships left up and down the Atlantic Coast. I think that the, I suppose I don¿t count them up because that, to me, is probably the least interesting part of the site. The fact it is carrying gold or silver is usually something that just ends up being something that provokes destructive activities around it.

DS 43:33
How do you want to be identified in relationship to George Bass. As a colleague?

DL 44:24
Sure, we¿re both in the¿any differences that George and I have, in terms of what I¿ve just been speaking about doesn¿t mean that I don¿t respect him as a colleague. And I hope I don¿t come across that way. I think he¿s done a lot of good, but I think the problem is that there have been some negative effects of George just like there are from a lot of people who¿ve been very successful over the years.

DS 44:58
Would you say the George Bass represents a passing era?

DL 45:14
I think that George does perhaps represent an era that¿s passing in that respect, that the future work that¿s done is going to be more clearly designed and laid out before the adventure begins, as one might say.

DS 45:42
Is most of your work behind a desk now or do you still get out in the field?

DL 45:55
Well, I¿m still getting out and doing research in the field, but I¿m also having, in the past couple of years, distinct broadening of the buttocks, which comes from being behind that desk too much, but since I¿ve been in this field, I¿ve run something on the order of 78 or 80 expeditions or projects on underwater sites and I¿ve been working on the sites as recently as the last couple of years.

DS 46:29
Are you working on anything now?

DL 46:32
Well, the last site that I¿ve been directly involved with has been the civil war submarine Hunley which is off of Charleston Harbor. I was diving, I¿ve been one of the principal investigators on the Hunley along with Chris Ameron from the South Carolina. It¿s a Civil War submarine and, ironically enough, after so many years of arguing for partial site excavation, this is one of the first sites of which I and others are recommending a complete excavation of. This site was originally found, by the way, by Clive Cussler through a private effort with his group Numa, which is an interesting sort of thing in relation to what we¿ve been talking about. If we¿re talking about private involvement in underwater archaeology, here is somebody who had the financial assets and the interest in the history to be very helpful and ultimately successful in finding a very significant historical site, but I think that he dealt with it very honorably after that. Essentially, he saw it as something that was property of the public and the state and he took all the necessary steps to see that it was protected and even that the archaeologist and bureaucrats didn¿t stumble over each other and make a mess of it. I think that¿s one way that you can have private people become involved when their motivation is obviously not just cashing in one the goodies once their found.

DS 48:28
Do you have a field season coming up on that site?

DL 48:32
I have people who are going to be there from my office and the Naval Historical Center and the state of South Carolina in June. I do not think that this year I am going to be personally on the site. I probably will be working in the Northwest, some of our Northwestern Parks, and also perhaps on the USS Arizona, which is of course a great American shrine and we mapped it many years ago, but now we are trying to do things to take care of it, There are some issues of deterioration and the oil leakage and corrosion and that sort of thing, so that is where I¿ll personally be.

DS 49:32
We can stop the log now.

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