Milestones: George F. Bass (1932–2021)

Pioneer of nautical archaeology

George F. Bass, who established the discipline of nautical archaeology, died on March 2, 2021, at the age of 88. During his first semester in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, his advisor, Rodney Young, offered George the opportunity to direct the excavation of a recently discovered shipwreck found underwater at Cape Gelidonya, off Turkey’s southern coast. George learned to dive at the local YMCA before heading out to the field.

The Gelidonya wreck sank c. 1200 B.C., at the seam between the end of the Late Bronze Age and beginning of the Iron Age. George’s 1960 excavation rewrote the manner in which archaeology addresses watercraft and seafaring of the past. It was the first excavation of an underwater shipwreck to conform to then-current terrestrial standards. George’s excavation report, which appeared in 1967, supplied new evidence for maritime commerce at that time and changed scholarly understanding of the dynamics of trade in that era.

Ships and seafaring were, and continue to be, pivotal to the story of humanity. Can one really imagine history without watercraft? Yet, until George’s Cape Gelidonya excavation, their archaeological study was largely ignored, and any interest in them can best be described in terms of salvage or treasure hunting. We owe a debt of gratitude to George for changing that.

As related in his 1975 book Archaeology Beneath the Sea, the early years were not easy. Scholars scorned George and his colleagues as jock divers. George won out, however. Today watercraft are studied scientifically “beneath the seven seas” (incidentally, the title of one of his many books) and beyond.

In 1972, to advance the study of ancient shipwrecks, George founded the nonprofit Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA; Then, in 1976, wishing to spread the “gospel” of nautical archaeology by teaching students, he affiliated INA with Texas A&M University to create the Nautical Archaeology Program, which offers a graduate degree in the archaeology and history of watercraft and seafaring.

George was a consummate writer, who emphasized to his students the importance of writing in a clear, concise, and readable manner. He received innumerable awards for his contributions to archaeology, the highest being the National Medal of Science, which he received from President George W. Bush during a ceremony at the White House in 2002.

Undoubtedly, the crown jewel of George’s work was the excavation of the Uluburun shipwreck (1984–1994), which he directed before passing on that responsibility to Texas A&M’s Cemal Pulak.a The vessel sank during the Late Bronze Age, c. 1300 B.C., off Turkey’s southern coast. This merchantman, which is thought to have had its home port in what today is northern Israel, was heading west with a remarkably rich cargo intended apparently for a Greek Mycenaean palace when it sank. The hull, its cargo, and other contents are rightly considered some of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

George is survived by his wife, Ann, their sons Gordon and Alan, and two grandsons.

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