Friday, December 10, 2004


International Handbook of Underwater Archaeology


Minerva Magazine
Review by Sean Kingsley

Edited by Carol V. Ruppé and Janet F. Barstad
Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2003
881pp, 124 b/w illus.
Hardback, £124


At 881 pages and over 2kg this massive undertaking is more doorstop than handbook. Nevertheless, the editors are to be congratulated in managing and controlling a huge body of geographically wide and chronologically diverse material, with 48 chapters herded into three broad sections.

The first offers a highly truncated, but engaging potted history of underwater archaeology (Janet Barstad thoughtfully tries to drag us away from the time-capsule term by calling shipwrecks ‘human history in a bottle’) and an invaluable and highly accurate reference timeline by John Broadwater for marine exploration from 480 BC to 2001.

Section 2, ‘The Geography of Underwater Archaeology’, is the beef of this sandwich and leads us a merry dive across the USA, South America, and the Caribbean, through Europe and the Mediterranean, to the East, Australia, and Africa.

Entries are concise, focusing on traditions of maritime heritage management, key sites and research, maritime museums, and technological developments.

For an up-to-date analysis of the state of play in underwater archaeology this section is highly informative (written by the leading specialists), although several scholars seem to suffer from head-in-sand syndrome by deliberately ignoring the work of colleagues toiling in similar countries and regions.

Section 3, ‘Issues in Underwater Archaeology’ looks at current legislation, technology, and government agencies, but ends up being far too specific to America, which is of course meaningless within a Mediterranean milieu.

For the uninitiated, this handbook is a first-class, undaunting introduction to underwater archaeology, enabling the reader to grasp the current situation rapidly and accurately.

For the specialist its importance lies in its accessibility to work conducted across the globe, of which it is often difficult to keep abreast.

Make no mistake, underwater archaeology is now a massive subject and a source of critical primary data.

For Professor George Bass, ‘the most important archaeological discoveries of the first half of the 21st century will be made underwater’ (p. 804).

Certainly the most sensational are likely to emerge from the deep blue sea, but, as Bass concurs, perhaps the time has arrived when the very term marine archaeology should be abandoned in favour of period specialisation.

After all, if we are excavating wrecks of the 5th century BC, 1st century AD, or 14th century AD, technically we are simply Classicists, Romanists or medievalists.

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