George F. Bass, who was often called the father of underwater archaeology, scouring shipwrecks for revelatory artifacts and developing new techniques for exploring the ocean, died on March 2 at a hospital in Bryan, Texas. He was 88.
His son Gordon confirmed the death.
Professor Bass was a graduate student in 1960 when he first donned a scuba tank and dived to the seabed of the Mediterranean. He went on to find bronze ingots more than 3,000 years old, wooden fragments that solved mysteries about shipbuilding from the time of the “Odyssey,” and much more — treasures that opened up a new field for archaeology, one that seemed to him as limitless as the Seven Seas.
Excavation of shipwrecks could provide not only “the ultimate histories of watercraft,” he later wrote, but also “the ultimate histories of virtually everything ever made by humans.”
Professor Bass led or co-directed archaeological efforts around the world, including in the United States, but he focused on the coast of Turkey — for thousands of years a maritime trade route for a succession of civilizations, from the ancient Canaanites to the early Byzantine Empire.
wrote that the Uluburun ship cast new light “on the histories of literacy, trade, ideas, metallurgy, metrology, art, music, religion, and international relations, as well as for fields as diverse as Homeric studies and Egyptology.”
The historical value of sunken treasure began to be recognized at the turn of the 20th century, when Greeks diving for sponge encountered a shipwreck carrying, among other goods, a magnificent ancient Greek bronze statue of a young man known as the Antikythera Youth. But sustained archaeological work under the sea was not feasible until 1943, when the oceanographers Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emil Gagnan invented the aqualung.
Cape Gelidonya in Turkey, solved a puzzle about why Homer refers to brushwood on Odysseus’s ship. The remains of a sunken ship there revealed that brushwood had been used as a cushion for heavy cargo to protect the hull.
Deborah Carlson, the president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, which Professor Bass helped create and then ran for much of his life, ultimately in Texas, said he deserved to be considered the founder of the field.
“Under his direction, ancient shipwrecks were excavated underwater for the first time,” she said in a phone interview. “He did it by taking his archaeological training and putting on scuba gear and taking the excavation to a new dimension.”
In his lectures, Professor Bass was fond of telling audiences about the ancientness of sea travel — which he said humans had developed before farming, shepherding or metalworking — and about the infinitude of shipwrecks to be discovered.
“We will never run out of worthy sites,” he wrote in “Beneath the Seven Seas” (2005), a book that chronicles his career. “Hundreds of ships have sunk in Aegean storms in a single day. We cannot calculate the number of wrecks in that one sea.”