A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
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In memory of my grandfather

Captain Lawrance Wilfred Gibbins

Master Mariner

LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

Plate Section

Here
  The second-millennium
BC
Dover Boat (© Canterbury Archaeological Trust)

Here
  Excavation at 44–51 metres depth at the fourteenth-century
BC
Uluburun wreck off Turkey, showing stone anchors, hull timbers and stacked copper ‘oxhide' ingots (© Institute of Nautical Archaeology / photographer Don Frey)

Here
  Excavation at the Uluburun wreck showing Canaanite jars on the left, a ‘pilgrim flask' and a kylix in the diver's hands, and a gold chalice in the centre (© Institute of Nautical Archaeology / photographer Don Frey)

Here
  The amphora mound at a depth of 38–43 metres at the fifth-century
BC
Tekta
ş
wreck off Turkey (© Institute of Nautical Archaeology / photographer Don Frey)

Here
  David Gibbins with an amphora from the Plemmirio Roman wreck (Cambridge Expedition to Sicily)

Here
  David Gibbins in Sicily with artefacts from the Plemmirio Roman wreck (Jim Coates / Cambridge Expedition to Sicily)

Here
  David Gibbins with an amphora top at the Plemmirio Roman wreck (Cambridge Expedition to Sicily)

Here
  David Gibbins with a bronze scalpel at the Plemmirio Roman wreck (Dr Chris Edge / Cambridge Plemmirio Project)

Here
  Divers in the 1960s at the sixth-century
AD
Church Wreck at Marzamemi, Sicily (Gerhard Kapitän)

Here
  Decorative marble with a cross from the Marzamemi Church Wreck (Gerhard Kapitän)

Here
  Chinese Changsha bowls at the ninth-century
AD
Belitung wreck, Indonesia (Dr Michael Flecker)

Here
  A large jar filled with Changsha bowls from the Belitung wreck in Indonesia (Dr Michael Flecker)

Here
  The eleventh-century
AD
Roskilde Viking ship reconstructed (CC BY-SA, John Lee, The National Museum of Denmark)

Here
  The port side gun-deck of the
Mary Rose
(David Gibbins)

Here
  The excavated hull of the
Mary Rose
(Hufton+Crow)

Here
  Copper-alloy Corpus Christi discovered on the wreck of the
Santo Cristo di Castello
(David Gibbins / Cornwall Maritime Archaeology)

Here
  David Gibbins with a cannon off the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, England, site of the wreck of the
Royal Anne Galley
(Ben Dunstan / Cornwall Maritime Archaeology)

Here
  The Man O'War rock off Lizard Point in Cornwall, England, site of the wreck of the
Royal Anne Galley
(David Gibbins / Cornwall Maritime Archaeology)

Here
  Three Portuguese gold ‘moidores' from the wreck of the
Royal Anne Galley
(David Gibbins / Cornwall Maritime Archaeology)

Here
  Silver fork and knife from the
Royal Anne Galley
bearing the crest of Lord Belhaven (David Gibbins / Cornwall Maritime Archaeology)

Here
  HMS
Erebus
visible on the seabed with Parks Canada underwater archaeologists on the surface (Thierry Boyer, Parks Canada)

Here
  Bottles in a storage room or dispensary on HMS
Terror
(Ryan Harris, Parks Canada)

Here
  Silver bars in the wreck of the SS
Gairsoppa
(© Seascape Artifact Exhibits Inc.)

Here
  The bow of the
Gairsoppa
as seen at a depth of 4,700 metres (© Seascape Artifact Exhibits Inc.)

Here
  The 4-inch gun of the
Gairsoppa
(© Seascape Artifact Exhibits Inc.)

Here
  Lawrance Wilfred Gibbins, second left, with his gun crew on board the SS
Clan Murdoch
(Estate of Captain L.W. Gibbins)

PROLOGUE

The historian Fernand Braudel in his book
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II
wrote that the sea ‘is the greatest document of its past existence'. When he first published those words in 1949, he could not have known how true they would become. The aqualung, or self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba), had only been perfected a few years earlier by Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan; divers were just beginning to use that freedom to explore the seabed. Very soon wonderful discoveries were being made off the south coast of France, Roman ships filled with cargoes of wine and fine pottery, and divers had begun to explore elsewhere around the world. The excavation of a Bronze Age wreck off Turkey in 1960 convinced archaeologists that scientific recording could be carried out underwater; a year later, the raising from Stockholm harbour of the
Vasa
, King Gustavus Adolphus' flagship from 1627, showed the extraordinary preservation that was possible. Sixty years on more than two thousand wrecks from classical antiquity have been discovered in the Mediterranean, and many thousands of all periods globally. A discipline was born that has breathed new life into archaeology, resulting in dazzling discoveries equal to those of the pioneer land archaeologists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and bringing the past alive in a uniquely exciting way.

This book is not
the
history of the world based on twelve shipwrecks, nor is it solely an account of twelve ships; it is
a
history of the world, in which the wrecks provide a springboard for looking at the wider historical context. Braudel himself suggested one structure for viewing history, distinguishing between the narrative events of conventional history, the wider context of the period or era and what he termed ‘la longue durée', the backdrop of economic activity that can seem unaffected by those events. Wrecks offer special access to history at all of these levels – unlike many archaeological sites, a wreck represents a single event in which most of the objects were in use at that time and can often be closely dated. What might seem hazy in other
evidence can be sharply defined, pointing the way to fresh insights. The wrecks in this book provide access to individuals, and that allows us most clearly to empathise with the past – whether it be a merchant from the time of Tutankhamun, an eye surgeon travelling to Rome in the second century
AD
, a Persian sea captain seeking gold in the South China Sea, an archer at the time of King Henry VIII, one of the greatest painters of all time lading his precious works on a ship in the harbour of Amsterdam, a doomed Polar explorer or the last survivor of a torpedoed ship in the North Atlantic. The artefacts that tell these stories are what make wrecks so exciting, with the lustre of gold and lost treasures never far away but even a humble potsherd having the potential to open up a whole new perspective on the past.

This book has its origins in a fascination with shipwrecks and diving that goes back to my early childhood. I had circumnavigated the world with my parents by the age of six, having travelled between England and New Zealand in each direction by ship. I was enthralled by the articles on underwater exploration that appeared in the 1960s in
National Geographic
magazine and by the films and books of Jacques Cousteau, and made my first attempt at snorkelling using equipment that I had made myself while still in New Zealand. I became fascinated by the career of my grandfather, a captain in one of the old East Indies shipping lines who travelled more than a million and a half miles in his career and came from a long line of sea-captains and merchants who had sailed the world's oceans. Growing up later in Canada, I made my first major archaeological discovery on a prehistoric site – a beautiful flint spearhead more than 8,000 years old. At the age of fourteen I attended an archaeology field course and carried out my first project underwater, snorkelling down to recover nineteenth-century bottles from a lakeside pioneer settlement that we had been excavating. These experiences engendered a lifelong fascination with the early exploration of North America, including retracing the routes by canoe used by the voyageurs of the seventeenth and eighteenth century as they went west through the forests and lakes seeking furs and new lands.

I qualified as a diver in Canada aged fifteen and first dived on a shipwreck in Lake Huron in the summer of 1978. I can still remember the thrill of that dive – the shock of the cold as the water seeped into my wetsuit, the hiss of my regulator as I dropped beneath the surface and the sight of the wooden wreck almost a hundred years old spread out on the rocks below. Another area of history had opened up for
me, of the vessels that plied the dangerous waters of the Great Lakes and the inland waterways bringing raw materials south – including timber from the northern forests that was destined across the Atlantic, supplying the shipyards of the Royal Navy with the wood they needed to build the vessels that defeated Napoleon and ushered in the maritime prosperity of the nineteenth century. Later I was to dive with my brother Alan on the wrecks of several of those warships that had been built on Lake Ontario itself, part of the fleet that had secured the future of British North America during the War of 1812 with the United States. The broad historical canvas in which I was able to see these wrecks – linking them to the events of far-off Europe and the geopolitics at play, looking at their construction and the raw materials that made that possible, exploring the lives of the people who sailed them and were affected by their loss – is something that remained with me and can be seen in my approach to the sites in this book.

The year after qualifying I dived for the first time under ice, and I had my first brush with mortality underwater – diving with my friend Steve Aitken in a submerged mine, my air suddenly cut off, I dropped our torch and we had to share his regulator in the pitch darkness, something that depended on our having trained together and being face-to-face in the narrow confines of the shaft. Years later I wrote about that experience for an article in the British
Sunday Times
magazine, and on how it gave an edge to diving that remains with me to this day. By the time I finished secondary school and was ready to embark on a degree course in archaeology in England, I had dived on many shipwrecks of the nineteenth century, had been more than 30 metres deep into the forbidding ‘death zone' of the Great Lakes and was yearning to dive on the wrecks that had so fascinated me as a boy – wrecks of the classical period in the Mediterranean, where I had my first experience diving on a wreck almost 2,000 years old in the summer of 1981.

The choice of wrecks in this book reflects my career as a maritime archaeologist since then, with more than half being sites that I have excavated or dived on. They represent areas of history that have fascinated me since I was a student, from classical antiquity through to the maritime world of the seventeenth century and the Second World War – in the Mediterranean, the seas off Britain and elsewhere around the world. The book also reflects my evolving sense of purpose as an archaeologist and historian. Wrecks by implication are catastrophic
events, but the voyages themselves can seem life-affirming – full of rich experience, with ever-present danger and the prize always just beyond the horizon, drawing us on. Underwater archaeology is an adventure like that, opening up many fascinating byways of history to those willing to be fully immersed – with each wreck like a newly discovered land, where preconceptions have to be cast aside and nothing is discounted. For me, the study of shipwrecks has been something akin to the ‘perfect hurricane of delight and astonishment' that Charles Darwin experienced on the voyage of the HMS
Beagle
. I hope that some of that excitement comes across in this book.

BOOK: A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks
8.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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