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INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE BASS
June 9, 1999, Questions by Logan Merriweather
Q: Were you interested in archaeology when you were a child?
George Bass: My uncle, Robert Wauchope, was a graduate student of archaeology at Harvard when I was very young, and I thought he was a real "Indiana\line Jones," so I had an indirect interest in the field, but had no intentions of becoming an archaeologist then.
Q: How did you decide to go into nautical archaeology?
George Bass: I was a doctoral candidate in Classical Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1959, specializing in Bronze Age Aegean archaeology, when Peter Throckmorton wrote to the University saying that he had found a Bronze Age shipwreck off the Turkish coast, wanted to see if it was possible to excavate under water as carefully as people excavated on land, and wanted to know if the University would be interested in mounting an expedition. My professor, Rodney Young, asked me if I would like to learn how to dive to be the archaeologist if the University backed an expedition. I took a YMCA diving course, and the rest is history...
Q: Why did you choose the Uluburun site?
George Bass: My main interest is the Bronze Age, and this seemed like a very good Late Bronze Age site when first reported to us by a Turkish sponge-diver, and visited by our team in 1983.
Q: Have any of the artifacts that you have recovered been of a vast archaeological importance?
George Bass: The Uluburun site produced the oldest known "book," the only known gold scarab of Egypt's famed Queen Nefertiti, the oldest known tin ingots, the oldest known glass ingots, the largest collection of Canaanite jewelry from any site, the oldest known seagoing hull, and so much more. It has been called by some archaeologists outside our group the most important Late Bronze Age site excavated in the second half of the twentieth century. Earlier we excavated a medieval ship that sank around A.D. 1025, and it produced the largest collections known of Byzantine tools and weapons, the largest collection of medieval Islamic glass in the world, perhaps the oldest dated chess set, and so much more.
Q: After finding a large or fragile artifact what steps do you take to excavate and preserve the artifact?
George Bass: We have professional conservators who know the correct techniques and and chemicals to use for ultimate treatments, but the main thing we must do is keep the object wet, for most materials suffer if they are allowed to dry quickly, especially with salt still in them.
Q What did you find that you personally find the most interesting at Uluburun site.
George Bass: The writing tablet (a boxwood diptych with ivory hinge; the inner\line faces of the boxwood "covers" were once coated with beeswax on which someone wrote with a stylus). It matches the tablet mentioned by Homer in the Iliad, in his only mention of writing in either of his famous poems; classical scholars had long assumed that such a tablet could not have existed at the time of the Trojan War in the Late Bronze Age.
Q: How long do you estimate it will take you and your team to complete the excavation of your site in Turkey?
George Bass: We hope to begin next week the excavation of a fifth-century BC shipwreck, but until we have uncovered more of it, we have no idea of its size. We guess it will take two summers--but it could be five.
Q: Can you determine what kind of people lived in the site that you are excavating by the artifacts that you find there?
George Bass: The nationality of the crew of any ship we excavate is often controversial--at Uluburun, for example, we had Canaanite, Bronze Age Greek, and Bronze Age Italian swords. But by careful study, analysis, and common sense, we usually feel confident in our ultimate decision (the 24 anchors on the Uluburun, ship, for example, are of a type known only in the Near East, and one would expect a crew to have brought anchors from their home port, so we assume that the crew was from the Near East).
Q: What do you consider to be the most significant nautical archaeological finds and why in the past 70 years?
George Bass: Which is more beautiful, a rose or a tulip? The Vasa, the Mary Rose, the Uluburun wreck, La Salle's La Belle, the Madrague de Gien ship near Marseille...and so many more...are all significant in different ways.
Q: Have you found any items that you did not think would turn up in the area that you are excavating?
George Bass: We did not expect to find on the Uluburun wreck any of the items I listed above, for in some cases no one knew they even existed.
Q: What are the main differences between under water excavation and \line excavation on dry land?
George Bass: The main difference is the lack of time an underwater archaeologist has when working on a site of any great depth. This summer, for example, each excavator will be able to work only 20 minutes twice a day. Compare that to land work, where an excavator can stay on the job for ten hours if he or she so desires.
Q: What is the hardest part of an excavation?
George Bass:The hardest, but most interesting, part of an excavation is the twenty years of library research, and the writing of the final report, that follow the diving.
Q: Do you prefer deep or shallow water excavations?
George Bass: I like wrecks deeper than 70 feet, so they are well protected from the waves in this part of the world (I am writing this in Turkey), but the deepest we have every worked is 200 feet. There are plenty of ancient wrecks to keep us busy in the 100-150-foot-deep range, and those are the wrecks we seek.
Q: Can you list some of the chief dangers involved in the excavation process?
George Bass: Our main fear is to have someone drown. Next is my fear of seeing an embolism (something I saw once in nearly four decades of underwater archaeology). We also fear people hurting themselves simply by being on rolling ships, or building camps on steep and jagged rocks.
Q: If a student is considering a career in nautical archaeology, in terms of academics how should they best prepare?
George Bass: If the student is a high-school student, I would suggest going home, reading a good novel by, say, Charles Dickens, and listening to a Brahms symphony. I am not kidding! Expand your mind! Learn to write well (by reading good things). Some of the best archaeologists I know came into archaeology in graduate school after obtaining undergraduate degrees in engineering, biology, English, etc. Learning foreign and ancient languages early is a tremendous help. Our field is very academic...we spend two years on conservation, library research, and publishing for every month we dive. Diving skills are really not very important to us, for we have trained good archaeologist students to dive, and they are then able to interpret what they see. Computer skills will become increasingly important.