You had to leave archaeology temporarily in 1957 to serve in the Army. Did that slow down your archaeological career?
Truth is, that was as important as any university degree I could have had. I was plunked down in a 30-man Army security unit in the middle of a rice paddy in Korea near the DMZ, the only American unit inside a Turkish brigade. It was a hardship outpost. The night I arrived the guys all got drunk and were rolling around in the rice paddies yelling obscenities at me. I was terrified; I didn’t know what to do. Well, I grew up that night, I guess. Suddenly I was in charge of generators, trucks, the food, the operation. When I got back to the States, Rodney Young, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania whom I’d worked with at Gordion, knew I’d had this formative experience. He had recently gotten a letter about a diver who’d found a Bronze Age shipwreck site off the coast of Cape Gelidonya in Turkey. Rodney asked If I’d like to go out and excavate this shipwreck.
Wait—did you even know how to dive at that point in your career?
I had to learn. So I joined the Depth Chargers at the Central YMCA in Philadelphia. My teacher was an ex-Navy diver who had lost an eardrum in a diving accident. At the end of the sixth lesson, we were still practicing snorkeling. I said to him one night, “Could I try a tank on once? I leave for Turkey tomorrow and the site is a hundred feet deep.” And I found it very easy. I’ve never had any problems with diving.
So you started excavating at Cape Gelidonya in Turkey with only one diving lesson under your belt?
That’s right—and it’s in the worst current in the Mediterranean. Cape Gelidonya was the first ancient wreck excavated in its entirety on the seabed, the first excavated by a diving archaeologist. Before, archaeologists would sit on the deck like dogs waiting for a bone and accept artifacts brought up by divers for them. The divers always were saying archaeologists could never learn to dive. But we could! Cape Gelidonya showed it.
Cape Gelidonya dated to 1200 B.C., making it the earliest known shipwreck at the time. What did those artifacts teach you about seafaring culture during that era?
At the start we all assumed it was a Mycenaean, or Late Bronze Age, wreck. All the English, German, and French sources indicated that Mycenaeans, the people of the Homeric epics, had a monopoly on maritime commerce back then. The reason was that Mycenaean pottery had been found all over Egypt, the Palestinian coast, and Cyprus. So when we found copper and tin ingots, which are used to make bronze, we assumed they were being shipped to Greece to be made into bronze.
Then I started studying pan balance weights that we excavated from the site. I saw certain weights repeating themselves—multiples of 9.32 grams. That’s an Egyptian qedet. Or 7.20 grams, which was another standard unit in the Near East. And a lamp from the ship appeared to be Canaanite. I concluded that it was actually a Near Eastern ship, not Mycenaean after all. At that time all classical archaeologists thought that bronze had to come from Greece, that Greece was the center of civilization. But it’s really a cultural bias.
You were criticized for identifying it as a Near Eastern wreck.
That excavation at Cape Gelidonya is the thing I’m proudest of in my career, and I didn’t get a single favorable review from archaeologists for my publication. But we later confirmed that the ship was from Cyprus, which was then part of the Near Eastern world. Underwater archaeologists were sneered at for so long. No one took us seriously. We were just a bunch of skin divers.
“Skin diver”—why that insult?
Skin diving was a macho thing in those days. Archaeologists thought it was a bunch of jock divers out there. They didn’t understand you can work more carefully underwater than you can on land. You can excavate one grain of sand at a time. You can’t do that on land. I remember when an archaeologist, who shall remain nameless, called underwater archaeology “that silly stuff you people do, bringing up amphoras.” At that time we had the largest dated collection of seventh-century pottery in the world. He was publishing a book on late-Roman pottery going up to the seventh century a.d. and he was calling it silly stuff. I said, “What do you mean, ‘silly’?” He said, “Well, you can’t do careful work underwater.” And I said, “Yeah, you can. We map things very accurately.” He couldn’taccept the fact that a diver is not just some clumsy guy with lead shoes.
After Cape Gelidonya you went on to excavate other sites, including a seventh-
century Byzantine shipwreck at Yassi Ada, an island off the western coast of Turkey. How did you find these sites?
Almost all the wrecks were shown to us by Turkish sponge divers. Based on the number of sponge boats, the number of divers, how long they go down, and how deep they go—all that stuff—we calculated once that if we interviewed every sponge diver about what they saw on the bottom, we’d learn as much as if one of us nautical archaeologists swam for a year. Some would say, yeah, but they are not doing scientific searches. Baloney. They were doing better searches than we ever did. Their livelihoods depended on it.
Despite your success, in 1969 you abandoned underwater archaeology. Why?
At Yassi Ada, one of our most skilled, experienced divers, Eric Ryan, was very near death when we pulled him from the water with an embolism. And then we had a sponge diver also brought to us with the bends, or decompression sickness, which is caused by nitrogen bubbles forming in your blood if you come up too quickly. It was horrible. He was calling out to his wife and Allah. He died during treatment in our decompression chamber. Eventually I thought, I’ve had a decade now of doing this. The odds are that one day, maybe a coed will die and I’ll have to lift her dead body out of the water. Why don’t I just get out of it now while I’m ahead? I’ve tempted fate too often.
You switched to work on land at a site in southern Italy. Why there?
It was a Neolithic [6000‒2800 b.c.] site. We were trying to determine when domestic animals were introduced into that part of Italy. We thought we might be able to study the bones and pottery to find that out. It didn’t work, and I remember thinking that out there somewhere in the Adriatic was probably a shipwreck that would answer this question so much better. Also, I just missed the smell of the sea and the seagulls and the rope and the smell of tar and all the things that surround boats.
So you hatched a plan to get back to your true love, underwater archaeology.
In 1972 my colleague Fred van Doorninck at U.C. Davis came and stayed at our house in Philadelphia to work on this final publication about the Byzantine wreck at Yassi Ada. And we started talking about this little dream: What if we had an institute devoted to underwater archeology? We were naive. We thought we could get a compound out on a peninsula on the Turkish coast and grow our own vegetables and buy ourselves a trawler.
How did you finally take the plunge and turn that dream into something real?
One day I got a call from a woman who said, “There’s this big piece of wood that’s washed up on the beach here in New Jersey.” She was wondering if it might be a Viking ship, and would I come down and look at it? My friend Dick Steffy, an electrician who built accurate ship models, and I went out and quickly saw it was modern, built in Maine around 1890. Then while we were driving home in separate cars I noticed Dick waving out of the window to stop. We pulled over to the side of the highway, he walked back toward me, and he said, “George, I’ve decided I’m going to make a career as an ancient shipwreck reconstructor.” I said, “Dick, there is no such thing. You’ve got a wife and children. You’ll starve to death.” He said, “If you don’t try something, you’ll just die and never know whether it would’ve worked.” I listened to him, and shortly thereafter I decided to leave Penn to found an underwater archaeology institute.