Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Nautical Archaeology as a Means for Promoting Intercultural Understanding - Shelley Wachsmann


It is a pleasure and an honor to be speaking to you today. I wish to thank Mr. Harry Tzalas and Mr. Spyros Mercouris for inviting me here.

Now, I have been tasked with presenting a ‘view from the sea’ regarding how nautical archaeology, broadly defined as the study of ships and seafaring, can contribute to the promotion of intercultural understanding.

For perspective, we must begin this discussion by first examining the role played by watercraft in the human story. I will use the term ‘watercraft’ here to describe all waterborne vessels, from the smallest and simplest of primitive rafts to the largest and most modern of ships. Perhaps the primary point to realize about watercraft is that they break down barriers to allow human interaction—some good, some bad. Ships can be used for peaceful and productive purposes, or for destructive ones. Watercraft—like guns—intrinsically are neither good nor bad—they simply are.

Seventy-one percent of the world’s surface is covered by water. Oceans, seas, and even rivers and lakes can function either as impassable barriers, isolating cultures and communities from each other or, alternately, as superhighways over which the same cultures and communities can interact. The sole difference between these two scenarios for our species has been and remains the ability, or lack thereof, to construct watercraft of sufficient sturdiness that they can stand up to the rigors of their specific maritime environment—be it oceanic, maritime, lacustrine or riverine—together with the seafaring knowledge to use them.

This human dependence of watercraft goes back to prehistoric times. Hominid
expansion out of Africa was largely a land-based endeavor. Yet, even in the first
populating of the world, we can already see the importance of watercraft. The earliest evidence today for the use of watercraft is the Aborigines populating of Australia, an event that evidence suggests occurred between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago.

During the greatest periods of glaciation, when much of Earth’s waters were locked away in massive glaciers resulting in the level of the ocean system plummeting and revealing immense areas of land, which now lie underwater. Even then, however, expanses of water separated Asia from Australia, requiring the latter continent’s first colonizers to employ some form of watercraft.

For many years it was thought that the earliest evidence for seafaring in the
Mediterranean Sea system dated to about 10,000 years ago. This is based on the
discovery of obsidian tools and flakes from the island of Melos at Franchthi Cave,
located in the Peloponnese. Here again, even at the lowest stand of the Mediterranean Sea, Melos was never connected to the Greek mainland. Reaching Melos from the mainland would not have been a direct route: the Mesolithic explorers would have island hopped across the Cycladic Islands.

Of the types of watercraft used in these voyages we know virtually nothing. There are no archaeological remains and no iconographic representations. Harry Tzalas had carried out fascinating experiments with reed rafts of a type, known as Papyrella, which still existed in Corfu in recent times, to determine if they could have been used in the voyages of exploration to Melos and the other Cycladic islands.

More recently (2009), however, scholars working at Plakias in southern Crete have
identified collections of Early Palaeolithic artifacts at three sites. If correct, this would draw back the beginnings of seafaring to at least 100,000 years before present and possibly much earlier.

Geneticists also propose that the human movement out of Africa crossed the southern tip of the Red Sea, near Bab el Mandeb. This expansion also may have required watercraft, although at the time of the expansion, due to the ice age lowering of the ocean system, watercraft may not have been necessary.

We must conclude, therefore, that from the beginning of humanity’s worldwide spread, watercraft played a crucial role, in permitting the movement of humans over water. Once seafaring knowledge existed—for the most part—it is unlikely to have been forgotten and we may legitimately presume that watercraft continued to serve human settlement in proximity to water on a regular basis for water-based activities, including, but not limited to, transport, trade, fishing, piracy, slaving and warfare. Simply put, literally since the Stone Age watercraft have been an integral tool in connecting cultures. In a very real way, the story of watercraft is the story of humanity.

When studying shipwrecks, it is important to understand them not as archaeological sites, but rather as highly-complex artifacts. In fact, as the great ship reconstructor, the Late J. Richard (“Dick”) Steffy pointed out, ships are generally the most complex artifacts created within any given culture. Indeed, even today, the single most elaborate artifact created by our world culture is the International Space Station (ISS), which is a type of ‘ship’ that sails in space rather than on water.

Watercraft were—and continue to be—built for the specific needs of the group based on the best materials and construction techniques available. This is not to say that all shipwrights and boatwrights always used the best materials: they used the best materials that were available to them. The difference between these two possibilities can be stark depending on availability. This can be expressed, for example, in two boats, from the Roman period dating to the first-century AD, both of which were studied by Steffy. One boat was found upside down near the seawall at Herculaneum, in Italy. This vessel, from a Roman seaside vacation settlement, epitomizes a boat from the center of Roman power.

The vessel had been carbonized by a pyroclastic flow at the time of the great eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 that buried both Pompeii and Herculaneum. Steffy was very impressed by the excellent timbers that he recorded in the vessel’s construction. Strakes were made up of single planks running from bow to stern.
Soon after his research visit to Italy, in 1986 I excavated a fishing boat roughly
contemporaneous to the Herculaneum Boat in the Sea of Galilee, at the far periphery of the Roman Empire. The Galilee Boat is of the type mentioned in the Gospels in use by the Disciples of Jesus. Soon after Steffy arrived and he had a chance to study the hull and construction of the Galilee Boat, the poor quality of timbers actually upset him. His first impression was that the boat had been built by an incompetent boatwright, because of the poor choice of timbers from which the hull is constructed. The next day, however, Steffy changed his mind. He told me that he had been wrong: the boatwright had been an excellent carpenter, but he had been forced to work with inferior materials. Indeed the Galilee Boat appears to have been built from recycled wood from one or more earlier boats and at the end of the vessel’s lifetime all its reusable timbers had been removed, presumably for reuse in other boats. This ‘wood starvation’ is a remarkable expression of the poverty of the general Jewish populace of the Galilee under Roman rule, referenced repeatedly in the Gospels.

There is another important dimension to watercraft: at one time or another they
transported virtually everything ever made or used by humankind, up to and including the mighty pyramids—stone by stone, of course: the white limestone facing of the Giza pyramids came from the Tura quarries on the east side of the Nile and would have had to be transported to Giza by Nilotic vessels.

The magnificent bronze statues of antiquity would be virtually unknown to us were it not for the fact that some of these sank in transport. Most ancient bronze statues did not survive on land, their metals being recycled in foundries for more utilitarian purposes, such as the manufacture of canons.

Along with the movement of material culture, watercraft also invariably transported ideas that changed history. For example, can anyone imagine the evolution of early Christianity without the sea voyages of St. Paul?

Ships also influenced cultures and history by being the conduit for the spread of the diseases that brought cultures to their knees, by transporting the rats that carried the pathogins.

Island cultures, of course, always remained highly dependent on watercraft. The
Polynesians perhaps represent the ultimate island culture. They developed ocean-going watercraft by means of which they populated, in stages, the Pacific Ocean, even reaching the shores of South America, before turning back. We know this primarily because of the Polynesian adoption of the sweet potato, which originated in South America.

And when island cultures lost their ability to build watercraft, the culture literally
withered on the vine. Once the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) culture cut down all the giant palm trees on Easter Island the culture devolved into internecine strife, and cannibalism, all but destroying the culture.

Where watercraft of different cultures came together, in port cities and êntrepots, one generally finds a far more liberal attitude towards foreigners within the general outlook of a national or regional culture. One need only view a map of the most recent, United States presidential elections in 2012 and note the location of the blue (Democratic Party = liberal) versus the red (Republican = Conservative) states. Almost all the ‘blue’ states border navigable water (the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Great Lakes or the Gulf of Mexico), while the majority of the Conservative-voting states are more or less landlocked. Note also that the cities considered most liberal in the United States, such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle all are port cities. This is not a coincidence.

Understanding the importance of a ship’s hull as a cultural marker, as well as its value as a transporter of material culture it becomes clear how each shipwreck, from any time period, can be of exceptional value is studying past cultural communications if properly excavated and published.

The study of ancient ships and seafaring promotes intercultural understanding today. First, scholarship when unfettered from political bonds—which unfortunately is not always the case—knows no boundaries. Nautical archaeologists are all citizens of a ‘State of Mind’ of preserving the past, and very often a single excavation will have participants from many countries. The Uluburun shipwreck represents a good example of this phenomenon. This vessel sank at the end of the 14th century B.C. off the southern coast of Turkey. To put this date into historical/mythological/biblical terms the ship sank about a century before the traditional chronologies for the Trojan War and the Exodus. At present
the Uluburu wreck is the oldest relatively well-preserved seagoing ship found.
Fortunately, it was excavated meticulously by Drs. George F. Bass and Cemal Pulak from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University. Artifacts on the Uluburn shipwreck derive from at least ten different regions and cultures: Afghanistan (tin), the Balkans, Baltic (Amber), Canaanite, Cyprus, Egyptian, Kassite, Mycenaean Greek, Nubian and southern Italy.

What is perhaps more interesting for the present discussion is the number of countries represented by the excavation’s team members. When all the different team members are considered, the roster reads like a nautical version of the United Nations. Citizens of 17(!) countries took part in the excavation’s 11 expeditions (1984-1994) and the conservation of the artifacts from the Uluburun shipwreck. While most of the team consisted of Turks and Americans (USA), team members also came from Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom, and Vietnam.

Finally, shipwrecks of historical and/or archaeological value often sink in foreign
waters. Theoretically, in certain cases these shared histories of different nations
connected through a shipwreck could be used in the future as a type of Nixonian ‘pingpong diplomacy’ in which the excavation, publication and particularly the exhibition of shipwrecks could be used to bring nation states together.

Shelley Wachsmann
Meadows Professor of Biblical Archaeology
Institute of Nautical Archaeology
at Texas A&M University
06 AUG 15
(Words: 1971)


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