How I became an Underwater Archaeologist






Following Dreams

Thank you for your interest in my work. All my life, I have tried to tell people that virtually anything is possible if you want to do it and are willing to work long and hard enough. The following is how I followed my own dreams.

My Dream

I found my first shipwrecks when I was just 12 (which is a story for another time). Those discoveries were the result of my almost overwhelming desire to be an archaeologist and explore ancient shipwrecks. It was something that I dreamed of day and night.

No Such Degree

I was told that to be a marine archaeologist I had to go to college. So I studied hard with hopes of a bright future researching, finding and salvaging shipwrecks. When I graduated from high school, I had SAT scores sufficient to get me into any university that I wanted. Unfortunately,at that time there was no undergraduate or graduate program for underwater archaeology anywhere in the world.

With no way of getting the only degree that I wanted, but with scholarships that paid my way, I just started taking college courses that I thought might help me in my future work as an “underwater archaeologist.” It was an odd mix of studies. At the university library, I taught myself to translate old Spanish. I took a number of languages (French, Russian, and German) that I thought I might need to do my scientific and historical research. I studied engineering, higher level math, and advanced physics because I suspected I would need those skills to design the specialty equipment that did not yet exist. I also took some welding courses at the local technical school so I could fabricate what I needed. I took cartography, computer mapping, interpretation of aerial photography, and computer programming. And, of course, I also took lots of history and anthropology courses. I spent literally thousands of hours searching for accounts of shipwrecks in old newspapers. I read through newspapers covering every day of every year from 1706 until the start of World War I. I spent months at the Library of Congress and the National Archives going through original documents and maps.

Persistence

I dropped out of college twice (first the University of Miami and next Charleston Southern University), partly in frustration of working towards a seemingly impossible goal (meaning a degree which didn’t yet exist) and partly to go on expeditions (usually ones I put together myself). But, knowing that I needed a degree to open some academic & bureaucratic doors that remained closed to me, I went back to school. This time I went to the University of South Carolina (USC). But, unlike before when I had a free ride via scholarships, this time, I had no scholarship, no loan, no job and no money.

It was winter and I spent the nights of my first week at USC sleeping, half frozen, in my car until the police rousted me in the middle of the night. When they found me they thought I was a dead body, because I had wrapped myself from the top of my head to my toes in an old blanket. For the next two weeks, I slept in the furnace room of the men’s dorm, with my feet against the door so I would wake up if someone entered. I’m six feet tall, but with no money for food, I was starving, my weight quickly dropped to 132 pounds. I finally got a job on campus and a decent place to live.

I dropped out again (to head still another expedition), but went back and eventually managed to accumulate enough credits to graduate.

First Ever

Officially my degree was awarded (cum laude) by the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of South Carolina for a program in marine archaeology. As far as I know, it was the first bachelor’s degree ever given anywhere for such a program.

Doctorate

In 1972, I was awarded one of five “Doctor of Marine Histories.” Requirements for this degree were set at a minimum of nine years of involvement in marine work or marine related research, as well as some significant contribution to the furthering of marine archeology or other marine related art or history, or the satisfactory completion of all course work normally required for a Doctor of Philosophy, with at least one year of intensive research in one of the marine related arts or histories, over and beyond that done meeting the course requirements for a Ph.D.

The creation and awarding of this degree was initially done by a written vote of Sea Research Society’s Board of Directors and Board of Advisors. Person’s voting for this degree included: the late Frederick Dumas (French underwater archeologist famed for his work with Jaques Yves Cousteau); Luis Marden (then Chief, Foreign Editorial Staff, National Geographic Magazine, and at that time National Geographic Society’s resident shipwreck expert); the late Ron A. Gibbs (Ron was then Registrar, Division of Museums, National Parks Service, and had previously worked on the federal government’s Dry Tortugas Shipwreck Project and other shipwreck projects); Edwin C. Bearss (historian for the National Park Service, author of numerous books including several on shipwrecks); Robert C. Wheeler (then Associate Director of the Minnesota Historical Society); Don Pablo Bush Romero (then president of the Club de Exploraciones Mexico, Mexican underwater archeological society); Sir Anders Franzen (discoverer of the wreck of the Swedish warship Vasa); Paul J. Tzimoulis (editor/publisher of Skin Diver magazine); and others of similar note.

Two others who received this degree were Sir Robert F. Marx, and the late Peter Throckmorton. Marx is the man I have long called the father of modern underwater archaeology. He is the author of over 50 books on shipwrecks and is best known for his work on the sunken city of Port Royal Jamaica and his discovery of the Spanish treasure galleon Nuestra Senora de la Maravillas. Throckmorton was renowned for his 1960 discovery of what was then the oldest known shipwreck in the world (it was from the Bronze Age). An account of that discovery was carried in National Geographic Magazine. Throckmorton published numerous articles and books on shipwrecks and underwater archeology, and was a professor at Nova University in Florida when he died.

At present the degree of Doctor of Marine Histories remains a non-traditional degree, in light of the above facts, you can see why I am proud of it.

Still at It

I am now 65 and still discovering and writing about shipwrecks. My most recently announced discoveries were the wrecks of the steamers SS United States and SS Ozama, lost in 1881 and 1894 respectively.

And that is just part of the story of how I followed my dreams and am still following them.

Dive safe,
Lee






Comment on this Post or Page on Shipwrecks.com: