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Underwater Archaeology Pioneer George Bass Dies at 88

In a storied career spanning decades, the archaeologist led excavations of ancient shipwrecks and inspired a generation of scientific adventurers.

By Kristin Romey

Photo of Nautical Archeology pioneer George Bass.Pioneering archaeologist George Bass, who played a critical role in the creation and evolution of underwater archaeology as a scientific discipline, died on March 2, 2021, in College Station, Texas. He was 88.

At the time of his death Bass still served as an advisor to the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), the world’s leading research institute for the study of shipwrecks that he established in 1972. The institute is currently headquartered at Texas A&M University, where Bass, a distinguished professor emeritus, developed one of the first academic underwater archaeology programs.

“The world has lost a giant in the field, and I have lost a great friend,” said underwater explorer Robert Ballard, a past INA board member, in a statement provided by the National Geographic Society.

“Just as archaeologists work on land”
Bass was a graduate student studying archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1960 when he was asked to investigate an ancient shipwreck discovered by Turkish sponge divers off Cape Gelidonya in southern Turkey. The 3,200-year-old Cape Gelidonya wreck, carrying a primary cargo of copper ingots, became the first shipwreck mapped and scientifically excavated in its entirety on the seafloor. At the time, it was the oldest known shipwreck in the world.

That title was superseded by the discovery and excavation of the Uluburun shipwreck in southern Turkey in the early  1980s. With the support of the National Geographic Society, Bass’s team documented and excavated an extraordinary trove of artifacts dating to the 14th century B.C., including precious objects from across the Near East and Europe that illuminated the complexity of trade in the ancient world.

Before leaving for his first shipwreck excavation in 1960, Bass’s only diving experience involved a few turns in a YMCA pool. Over the course of investigating dozens of shipwrecks dating from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages, however, he demonstrated that the scientific rigor of land-based archaeological techniques could be replicated in demanding underwater environments by archaeologists equipped with SCUBA or surface-supplied air.

“We had not come to dive for sport or for treasure,” Bass wrote in his first of many articles for National Geographic in July 1963. “Our aim was to proceed underwater just as archeologists work on land: To dig down layer by layer, carefully recording the position of each object in the cabin or hull before moving it or raising it to the surface.”

Inspiration to generations of archaeologists
Born in Columbia, South Carolina, on December 9, 1932, George Fletcher Bass was the son of an English professor and a writer, whose influence could be seen in the hundreds of articles and books the archaeologist published over the course of his career. Most notably, Bass also wrote for general audiences and non-specialists, beginning with early articles for National Geographic and his 1966 book Archaeology Under Water, which sparked wide interest in the burgeoning discipline.

“He was a public communicator of science at a time when that was particularly frowned upon by the academic community, and that communication of his research inspired the next generation of underwater archeologists,” says underwater archaeologist James Delgado, senior vice-president of SEARCH, Inc. and former INA president.

“George Bass not only opened a new world of wonders to archaeologists and historians, but also to the broader public,” adds Fredrik Hiebert, the National Geographic Society’s archaeologist in residence.

Under Bass’s guidance, INA expanded its work across geographical regions and historical periods, ranging from Revolutionary War-era vessels in Lake Champlain to an Ottoman frigate in Japan. In the 1990s, INA established a research center in Bodrum, Turkey, staffed by Turkish archaeologists and conservators.

“Wherever we were excavating, [Bass] made a concerted effort to bring local students and archaeologists on to the project; he also helped many students get to Texas A&M so that they could attend classes in the nautical archaeology program,” recalls Deborah Carlson, INA’s current president and a former student of Bass. “I know that was one aspect of his career that he was very proud of.”

Bass was a recipient of 36 research grants from the National Geographic Society over the course of 39 years, and was awarded the Society’s La Gorce Gold Medal in 1979 and Centennial Award in 1988. He received the nation’s highest award for lifetime achievement in scientific research, the National Medal of Science, in 2002.

Bass is survived by his wife and longtime expedition partner Ann, and his two sons, Alan and Gordon. 

Originally published here by National Geographic.