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One for the memoires: how NAS training turned one person’s maritime passion into a close encounter with a Roman wreck.

 "I know... nothing more moving than the vestiges of shipwrecks," says Chilean poet Pablo Neruda—and many an NAS member will agree. Here lifelong yachtsman and new diver Kees Post relates how an encounter with the NAS website turned a passion for the sea into a close encounter with some 2,000-year-old artefacts in Croatia—all in the space of 8 months.

I have a dash of salt in my blood. Whenever I surf the internet, it is about ships, wrecks and sea stories. And so, last November, I found the NAS website, and was soon following the Society’s online Introductory and Underwater Archaeology courses. Interesting stuff: how does excavation work under water, from planning to publication? What happens to a cannonball if you fish it from the seabed after 400 years? How do you date a keelson using tree rings? Doors to a new world swung open. 

After theory, it was time for action. I feel at home in Croatia, and so signed up for NAS practical courses at the renowned International Centre for Underwater Archaeology (ICUA) in Zadar this June. At the Old Diver dive centre in Bale, my fellow-participant Jay and I pitched our little tents alongside. Jay is a sidemount instructor in Bali. The third student was Ella, a terrestrial archaeologist from Malta. We’d get along just fine.   

 In the classroom

Image: In the classroom 

The courses are taught by three ICUA-archaeologists: Dr. Luka Bekic, Mladen Pešić and Roko Surić. They teach us to draw details using a grid frame: we practice ashore first, then under water. We learn to map wrecks using 2D and 3d survey techniques. We train underwater on a Venetian pier, measuring control and detail points. Back in the classroom, we process our measurements in the Site Recorder program: lo and behold, a digital model of the pier emerges. Search methods, dealing with finds, project planning and safety are also discussed. 

The course is fascinating because the ICUA-staff share their vast experience, and because the classroom hours alternate with dives in the crystal-clear sea. Historic remains are scattered on the seabed, and Ella finds an intact Roman oil lamp! Time flies. After three great days, we end with a BBQ that lasts into the small hours.

 The author happily dredging

Image: The author happily dredging 

Parallel to our course, ICUA is excavating at Velika Sestrica island, as part of the "Shipwrecks of Rovinj" project in collaboration with the Bayerische Gesellschaft für Unterwasserarchäologie. The Croatian/German diving team excavates a Roman wreck: each night, the team returns to the dive centre to photograph and document their finds. The wreck was loaded with Forlimpopoli and Dressel 2-4 amphorae produced in northern Italy around the 1st and 2nd centuries AD to carry wine. There was also a smaller number of ceramic vessels from the Aegean. In addition, large rectangular stone blocks are visible—perhaps part of the cargo. Over the centuries, waves and surf have embedded these remains in deep trenches in the bedrock, then covered them with sand, gravel and stones.

 Finding the Roman theatre oil lamp

Image: Finding the Roman “theatre” oil lamp 

Ella will attend the NAS Underwater Photogrammetry course with other students, and Jay unfortunately has to leave, but I am added to the diving team to participate in the excavation! The smile on my face is now permanent. From the dive vessel, we dive in buddy pairs with 15 litre tanks, allowing two-hour work time. Each trench is measured by triangulation. All finds are tagged and photographed under water before being moved: only then may they be touched and packaged. Much like a criminal investigation, traceability and documentation are of paramount importance.

 Daily documentation of finds

Image: Daily documentation of finds from the Roman wreck 

Archaeologist Maja Kaleb teaches me how to handle a waterdredger, lovingly called ‘the Mammoth’. I lie on the seabed with it under my left arm, and with my right hand scoop sand and gravel into this huge vacuum cleaner. Suddenly a round shape appears: the neck of an amphora. Minutes later, my tutor Mladen and I carefully raise an artefact that has not been touched by human hands for nearly 2,000 years. In the next trench, Roko uncovers a Roman oil lamp, decorated with the comedy-and-tragedy theatre masks. At the end of our shift, the trench is so deep that only our fins are visible: it feels like starring in a National Geographic video. From the ship, a press release goes out to the media.

 An artefact packed

Image: An artefact packed, labeled and ready to go to the ICUA conservation labs. 

Follow-up research is planned for 2019: a good reason to return next year. Meanwhile, the artefacts are undergoing conservation at the ICUA laboratory, before being exhibited. I’ll write about this week in my memoires someday. 

For future NAS training courses at ICUA, click here

You can see a short video clip of Kees at work with the water dredge here

Interested in getting involved in NAS training, fieldwork or events? Visit https://www.nauticalarchaeologysociety.org/content/get-involved 

Join the NAS here!