Saturday, September 11, 2004


Rhode Island welcomes first class in archaeology oceanography


By Richard C. Lewis, Associated Press Writer

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The University of Rhode Island welcomes its first batch of students seeking advanced degrees in an emerging field of scientific exploration -- archaeological oceanography.

Graduates of the five-year program will get a master's degree in history and a doctorate in oceanography. Five students have been accepted for this year, and begin classes next week.

"It's a bringing together of two worlds that historically have not granted joint degrees," said Robert Ballard, the underwater explorer who discovered the Titanic and the program's creator. "They're about as far apart as you can take two sciences and bring them into one."

Only about 5 percent of the world's oceans have been explored, and much of the underwater archaeology, including exploring submerged cities and shipwrecks, has taken place in shallow waters.

The URI program plans to take archaeology deeper. Technological advances with unmanned deep-sea submersibles and robotic excavators sensitive enough to handle artifacts much like a human would on land have invigorated the drive to explore what lies at the bottom of the world's oceans.

The accepted students say they're attracted to the program because of its novelty, and the opportunity to be part of major expeditions.

Next summer, the group is scheduled to assist Ballard and other scientists in searches for Phoenician and Minoan ships in the Mediterranean. They'll also help with studies of hydrothermal vents and deep-sea corals in the North Atlantic Ocean.

"I think that it's time that we put those tools to use that we have for other sciences ... to go look for things that actually mean something to human history," said Katy Croff. The 26-year-old has an undergraduate degree in ocean engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a masters degree in maritime archaeology from the University of Southampton in England.

Other students have undergraduate or graduate degrees in subjects including anthropology, geology, marine science and maritime history.

Ballard said they're special because they have a background in human history and an academic foundation in physical sciences.

"I was looking for crossover students," he said.

The university, with its main campus in South Kingstown, has billed the program as the only one of its kind. Other schools offer graduate degrees in archaeology and oceanography, though none have rolled them into one formal curriculum, the university says.

Bonnie Clendenning, executive director at the Archaeological Institute of America, said the school is capitalizing on its strength in ocean sciences, while adding archaeology to the mix.
"That would make a great deal of sense for them to do this," she said.

A few other schools have similar credentials. Texas A&M University, for example, has a graduate program in nautical archaeology with about 10 new students each year. It also offers advanced degrees through its oceanography department.

The College Station, Texas school has asked the state's Board of Regents to create a Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation that would somewhat resemble the archaeology oceanography program at URI, said Donny Hamilton, head of the nautical archaeology program at Texas A&M.

The main difference is that the coursework would concentrate mostly on shipwrecks in shallow water, where extensive excavations can be done, said Hamilton, an archaeologist for nearly 30 years. URI's program is predicated on exploring deep water environments.

"To what degree is (archaeological oceanography) archaeology when you go down in a submersible, and you can only (retrieve) two pieces?" Hamilton said. "They call it archaeology, but I like it hands-on. Theirs is hands-on, but with a remote control arm."

The distinction doesn't matter much to Alicia Coles, whose parents told her about the program after reading about it in URI's alumni magazine.

"We're doing something that nobody has done before," said the 26-year-old University of Nebraska graduate with a masters in anthropology. "That kind of ranks you up there with people who have gone to space or (on) some other exploration."

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