France, a pioneer of underwater archaeology



by D. Camus ,France

Who has not thrilled to a seafaring tale of newfound passages and far-flung landfalls, pirates and plunder, mutiny and marooning, or to the Raft of the Medusa and the “Convergence of the Twain”? But what of the hapless, silenced by the sea? Are their tales to remain forever untold, their spirits drifting mute like flotsam on the boundless main? Long inaccessible, hidden away in Davy Jones’s locker, the imprint of humankind in the silence of the depths is now being deciphered by marine archaeologists. Theirs is a discipline that long struggled to establish itself, hampered by the difficulties of reaching underwater sites and by captious dry land archaeologists contending that the sea bears no trace of the past, has no memory. Yet submerged sites, oftentimes the aftermath of shipwrecks or seismic events, are time capsules of human interaction with seas, lakes, and rivers. With its 11 million square kilometers of territorial waters and maritime borders with 30 countries, France not surprisingly was the first country to invest in underwater archaeology. In 1966, André Malraux, the then French Minister of Culture, created the Department for Underwater and Undersea Archaeological Research in Marseilles, which, with the aid of its 30-meter boat L’Archéonaute, has since mapped over 900 sites in its mission to protect and preserve France’s underwater cultural heritage.

Medicographia. 2010;32:97-104 (see French abstract on page 104)

Taking the plunge

Working underwater is hazardous and complex. Diving equipment is burdensome— breathing apparatus, isothermal combination, flippers, diving weights, buoyancy compensator—comfort relative, and the breathing of compressed air means that a diver is less efficient than when working on dry land. Beyond a depth of 10 meters, tissue nitrogen uptake forces a diver to limit time spent underwater or to undergo gradual decompression, either by resurfacing in successive stages or by using a decompression chamber. Strict observance of safety rules is therefore key to successful underwater exploration of archaeological sites.

_ Famous early discoveries
Remarkable finds in the 1900s spurred archaeologists’ interest in shipwrecks. Two cargoes of Greek artworks were discovered a few years apart: in the Aegean Sea at Antikythera (including a large 4th century BC bronze statue of Hermes), and then off the coast of Tunisia near Mahdia.


A team of divers handling a 2-ton, eight-sided calcite block with the utmost care, as the slightest slip could have severe consequences.

After the inscriptions on it were studied, it was determined that it comes from the era of Sethi I (1290-1278 BC), the father of Ramses II.
© Stéphane Compoint.


A 2nd-century bronze statue of Hermes, the messenger of the Gods in Greek mythology, found during underwater excavations at Mahdia, Tunisia.

© Musée National du Bardo, Le Bardo, Tunisia/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library.


The Mary Rose, an English Tudor warship built in Portsmouth (1509-1510),
is the only 16th-century warship on display anywhere in the world.

The ship was thought to have been named after King Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, and the Tudor emblem, the rose. It was one of the first warships to be able to fire a full broadside of cannons. Oil on canvas (20th century). © Richard Willis (contemporary artist)/private collection/
The Bridgeman Art Library.

These exceptional finds prompted the Italian authorities to undertake excavations near Rome on the bed of Lake Nemi, which since the 15th century had been known to be the last resting place of two ships built for the Roman Emperor Caligula in the first century AD. From 1928 to 1932, the lake was drained and the wrecks, which had already been plundered, were studied scientifically for the first time. One ship served as a temple dedicated to Diana, the goddess of the hunt; the second was a floating palace, with heated, mosaic floors and baths, inspired, it is believed, by Caligula’s fascination with the opulent lifestyles of the Hellenistic rulers of Syracuse and Ptolemaic Egypt.

The Mary Rose is the only 16th century warship on display anywhere in the world. One of the first warships able to fire a full broadside of cannons and the pride of the English fleet, she was built for Henry VIII in 1509-1510 and was manned by a crew of 200 sailors, 185 soldiers, and 30 gunners. After serving for over thirty years, she sank in the Solent during an engagement with the French fleet in July 1545, not it seems because of enemy fire. It would appear that in firing from the port side first and then turning sharply to fire from starboard, the Mary Rose heeled and water flooded in through the open gunports. Her plight was worsened because the upper decks were crowded with soldiers in full armor, thus raising the ship’s center of gravity, and she capsized. The wreck was rediscovered nearly three centuries later, but the location was subsequently forgotten and new searches begun in the 1960s culminated with the lifting of the Mary Rose in 1982.

In August 1628, on her maiden voyage from Stockholm, the Swedish warship Vasa ran straight into a violent storm and foundered before it could even leave the harbor, in full view of thousands of Stockholmers eager to see the great ship set sail. After much searching through the archives, Anders Franzen relocated the Vasa in the 1950s, at a depth of 32 meters in a busy shipping lane just outside Stockholm harbor. Exceptionally well preserved because of the low salinity of the Baltic Sea, the Vasa was recovered in 1961 and is now housed in a purpose-built museum in Stockholm, where it offers a fascinating insight into life aboard a 17th century warship.

_ The Mediterranean
Marseilles has played a key role in the history of archaeological diving. Studies by Jacques-Yves Cousteau of the wreck of the Grand Congloué in the Harbor of Marseilles in the 1950s are regarded as a world first. The divers used scuba equipment, developed by Cousteau, and a suction dredge to clean the site. The expedition’s archaeologist, Fernand Benoît, remained aboard the support ship Calypso, while the divers, albeit untrained in archaeology, searched the wreck and recovered artifacts. Not being a diver, Benoît was unable to observe first hand the positions of the wrecks, and this led to thirty years of controversy regarding the dating of one thousand Roman amphoras and a large cargo of black, glazed dishware and Greco-Roman amphoras. Only later was it realized that the cargoes were actually from two superimposed wrecks of vessels that had sunk almost a century apart.

In the 2nd century BC, when Rome had conquered the wineand pottery-producing regions of Latium and Campania, there was extensive trading between Italy, Gaul, and the Iberian Peninsula. As Michel L’Hour, the Director of the Department for Underwater and Undersea Archaeological Research (DRASSM) in Marseilles, points out, “one third of the ancient shipwrecks currently inventoried in the Mediterranean bear witness to this huge trade and together account for some 13 000 pieces of dishware and double that number of amphoras”.


The stern of the warship Vasa. Vasa, which was built in 1628, was lost on its maiden voyage before it could leave Stockholm harbor, after running into a violent storm.

© Vasa Museum, Stockholm, Sweden/Ken Welsh/ The Bridgeman Art Library.

Further evidence of this trade emerged during the excavation of a shipwreck off the harbor of Madrague de Giens, near Hyères, in what is considered the first scientific underwater excavation conducted in France (1972 to 1982). This 1st century BC sailboat (40 meters long, 9 m wide; approximately 400 tons) was carrying wine from Italy in thousands of amphoras of the Dressel 1B type, as well as hundreds of black, glazed vases.


Paleolithic cave painting of a stag from the Cosquer Cave, near Marseille, France.

© AFP/The French Ministry of Culture and Communication/The French Navy.


The hand of time. An image of a hand found in sector 205 of the Cosquer Cave.

The artist would have used clay or carbon to produce this type of stencil painting. © Luc Vanrell/SRA PACA/IMMADRAS 2003.

The Mediterranean also boasts the cave with the oldest cave paintings in the world: the Cosquer Cave, located near Cap Morgiou, not far from Marseille in France. The cave, named after Henri Cosquer, the professional diver who discovered it in 1985, is the only underwater cave with Paleolithic cave paintings in the world. The entrance to the cave is located 37 m below sea level because of changes in the relative altitudes of land and sea since prehistoric times. During the peak of the last major glaciation era approximately 20 000 years ago, the Würm period, the shoreline of the Mediterranean would have been several kilometers away. It contains paintings from two distinct Upper Paleolithic eras. The first set comprises 65 hand stencil paintings, which date back approximately 27 000 years (Gravettian epoch), while the second set consists of 177 animal drawings, which date back 19 000 years (Solutrean epoch). Both land animals, such as bison and horses, and marine animals, like seals and penguins, are represented in the latter set. Interestingly, ancient stencil hand paintings, which are all of adult hands in the Cosquer Cave, have been found throughout the world, from Australia to Africa and from Asia to the Americas.

_ The English Channel and the Atlantic
Long discounted because of its depressions and dangerous currents, the English Channel and the Atlantic off the French coast became of focus of great interest in the 1980s. When archaeologists from DRASSM were called in to work on a wreck discovered five miles from Ploumanac’h, they found that it contained an astonishing cargo of lead ingots covered with inscriptions in Latin characters. Epigraphic study of the 271 ingots showed that the shipwreck was ancient. Michel L’Hour explains that:

In 1994, a Breton diver discovered the La Natière site off Saint Malo. An initial survey revealed an extensive site, almost 50 meters from East to West and from North to South. As the excavations advanced, the archaeologists found four shipwrecks and Michel L’Hour qualified the site as “one of the most attractive in the world. A veritable underwater Pompeii. The sites were unchanged since the time of the sinking”. After eight years of work, two shipwrecks were identified. La Dauphine was a large royal frigate that disappeared on 10 December, 1704, when returning with a captured English ship, The Dragon. It was remarkably well preserved, with objects from daily life aboard, such as Norman and German pottery, arms, pewter pots, swords, sabers, pistols, and a surgeon’s instrument case. And at the La Natière II site, there was the wreck of L’Aimable Grenot, a privateer frigate lost at sea on 6 May, 1749, with its cargo of Breton cloth to be sold at Cadiz. In 1692, at the height of the War of the League of Augsburg, when Europe was opposed to French ambitions, Louis XIV sought to help his cousin King James II of England regain his throne, which he had lost to William III of Orange. Louis offered to make his fleet and men available, under Vice Admiral de Tourville. After initial success off Barfleur on 29 May, when Tourville defeated an Anglo-Dutch fleet, English ships destroyed three of the largest French vessels in Cherbourg Harbor and, a few days later, burnt twelve French ships anchored in Hougue Bay. This defeat sounded the death knell for the ambitions of Louis XIV and James II to invade England.


Portrait of Le Comte de Tourville, Vice Admiral and Marshal of France.

Print with watercolor highlights (31×20 cm), French school (17th century). Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France.© RMN/El Meliani.
Until then there had never been any tangible evidence of the sea trade in raw materials in the English Channel before and after the Roman Conquest of Britain. The Ploumanac’h wreck offered the first opportunity to study this trade. In terms of its cargo and chronology, this shipwreck is still the only one of its kind in Northern and Western Europe.

In 1985, a Norman diver reported these wrecks and the local French authorities called on the expertise of DRASSM, with a view to setting up a maritime museum on Tatihou Island. From 1990 to 1995, Michel L’Hour and Elisabeth Veyrat codirected the excavations at a depth of 4 to 9 meters. Some 5000 hours of underwater work revealed five wrecks from Admiral Tourville’s fleet and enriched our knowledge of shipbuilding, weaponry, and life aboard royal ships during the reign of Louis XIV, a pivotal period in the evolution of ship hull design.

_ The high seas
Shipwrecks in shallow water suffer the ravages of time, erosion, and human activity, but those resting at greater depths are magically preserved and are most commonly discovered while drilling for oil. In 1985, while exploring Gabonese territorial waters, the company Elf Gabon discovered an archaeological site at a depth of twelve meters. The French authorities lost no time in dispatching a team from DRASSM, led by Michel L’Hour and Luc Long. With logistic backup from Elf Gabon, an exhaustive three-month study of the site identified the Mauritius, a three-masted Dutch vessel (40 to 45 meters long) built in 1601-1602 for the Dutch East India Company. In addition to cannon, instruments from a surgeon’s trunk, a bronze bell, and white and blue porcelain, the archaeologists discovered 140 tons of pepper and 20 000 zinc disks, a cargo that gives us a glimpse of 17th century trade between Asia and Europe.

On 24 May, 1997, an autonomous underwater vehicle was exploring the coastal waters of the Sultanate of Brunei for TotalFinaElf, when piles of dishes and jars suddenly appeared in its light beams. Excavations overseen by DRASSM lasted three months and involved a multidisciplinary team 172 strong (archaeologists, caterers, divers, artists, experts in gas mixtures, physicians specialized in diving accidents), 70 of whom were French. Two submarines—Jules and Jim—fitted with three 450-watt projectors and several cameras, enabled the archaeologists to work in excellent conditions at a site that had probably never been plundered because of its distance (22 nautical miles) from the coast. Every day, the Royal Brunei Navy ferried the team from the shore to a barge anchored near the site. Another land-based team received over 13 200 objects retrieved from the sea, which they sorted, restored, drew, photographed (20 000 digital photos), and inventoried on a daily basis. These sunken treasures of Brunei, it was established, were lost in the South China Sea during a commercial voyage of a vessel (22 meters long and 8 meters wide) probably dating from the late 15th or early 16th century.


Bust of Julius Caesar found in the Rhone.

This life-sized bust of Caesar, possibly the oldest example known, according to the French Ministry of Culture, has been tentatively dated to 46 BC. It was discovered in
the river Rhone near the town of Arles, which Caesar founded. © French Ministry of culture/SIPA.

French underwater archaeologists have made many remarkable finds over the first few decades of scientific exploration of the ocean depths, and will no doubt in the future uncover many more of the three million or more wrecks and hundreds of submerged rock art sites, cities, and monuments that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates remain undiscovered around the world.

_ An exceptional discovery: the bust of Caesar at Arles
Luc Long, curator at DRASSM, has for twenty years been exploring the bed of the Rhone River, a task complicated by poor visibility and strong currents. For a decade, he and his team have been diving at Arles, where they have discovered hundreds of amphoras and pottery that bears witness to a booming river trade in Roman times. In September 2007, Long and his team recovered a veritable treasure trove of marble sculptures (Neptune, Asclepius), architectural fragments, magnificent bronzes (including a gold-plated Victory), and a 40 cm-high white marble bust of Julius Caesar, which he believes was sculpted from real life. If so, it is one of the most important historical discoveries in France since the 1960s. “That it was found here is not surprising,” says Long, “as Caesar founded Arles in 46 BC. After his assassination, the bust may have been thrown in the Rhone by partisans of Pompey.”

_ Alexandria: metamorphosis, preservation, and rebirth
In 1912, the French engineer Gaston Jondet was the first to publish maps of underwater ruins at Alexandria, discovered during work to enlarge the western port. In 1990, the French archaeologist Jean-Yves Empereur created the Centre d’Études Alexandrines.


The port of Alexandria in Egypt with the remains of its famous Lighthouse.

The present day port of Alexandria, the largest port in the Mediterranean, with the vestiges of the famed Lighthouse in the forefront. © Stéphane Compoint.


A representation of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders
of the Ancient World, by Hermann Thiersch (early 20th century).

It was built on the island of Pharos in the 3rd century BC. ©Stéphane Compoint.

Soon after, the center was asked by the Egyptian Antiquities Department to study the waters around the Citadel of Qaitbay. Between 1994 and 1996, in the sector where Jondet conducted his first explorations, Jean-Yves Empereur’s team from the Centre d’Études Alexandrines (CEAlex) drew up a digital map of over 3000 pieces of stonework (some weighing 75 tons) of archaeological interest, spread over 2 hectares under only 8meters of water. These blocks of granite, statues, columns of different shapes, capitals, and parts of obelisks are probably vestiges of one of the SevenWonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Early on the morning of October 4, 1995, archaeologists from CEAlex pulled a 12-ton granite torso over 4 meters high from the seabed and, using further finds of the crown, head, and legs, pieced together a 12-meter statue that used to stand guard at the main door to the lighthouse. This statue was of Ptolemy II, the king of Ptolemaic Egypt, during whose reign (283 to 246 BC) was completed the fabled Lighthouse that for centuries guided ships into Alexandria, one of the greatest ports of the ancient world. Ongoing topographic studies and the architectural inventory are currently being directed by Isabelle Hairy of CEAlex.


Remains of a statue of Ptolemy II found at Alexandria, Egypt.

This section of torso carved from pink Aswan granite is 4.55 meters long and weighs 12 tons. After its recovery, it was placed in a desalination tank for 6 months before being restored. Together with its crown, head, and legs, this statue is 12 meters tall. © Stéphane Compoint.


A riddle at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea found during underwater exploration of the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

An archaeologist, face to face with a sphinx 8 meters underwater, traces the royal seal of the pharaoh Ramses II (1300-1235 BC). This 2-ton sphinx, with the body of a lion and head of a man, was carved from pink Aswan granite, and was a symbol of royal power in ancient times. It was the sole statue discovered intact of the 12 sphinxes found during exploration of the site.
© Stéphane Compoint.

Kamel Abul Saadat was the first diver to explore the port of Alexandria in 1960. A few years later, the archaeologist Honor Frost and the geologist Vladimir Nesteroff, working for UNESCO, confirmed vestiges of the palaces of Alexander and Ptolemy and located, at the site of the current 15th century Citadel of Qaitbay, the ruins of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was destroyed by earthquakes. The French architect Jacques Rougerie recently won an international competition to design an Underwater ArchaeologyMuseumin Alexandria, to be built near the site of the famous Library of Alexandria. Rougerie, a specialist in architecture for extreme environments, such as sea and space, has designed a futuristic, partially submerged museum where visitors will be able to walk through an undersea tunnel to discover the heritage of the Bay of Alexandria in situ.

_ The mystery of the Lapérouse Expedition
As he mounted the scaffold on 21 January, 1793, Louis XVI is reputed to have called out “Have we any news of Monsieur Lapérouse?”. Apocryphal or not, his inquiry reflects the fascination of the time engendered by the mysterious fate five years before of the explorer Lapérouse and his two ships, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe (The Compass and The Sextant), which disappeared with all hands in the Solomon Islands, east of Papua New Guinea.

In appointing Jean-Baptiste Lapérouse to lead an expedition around the world, Louis XVI hoped to complete the mapping of the planet, establish new trading posts, open up new sea routes, and enrich scientific knowledge and collections. The expedition’s two frigates, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, left Brest in August 1785 with 220 men aboard. For nigh on three years, they sailed the high seas to Easter Island, the Sandwich Islands, the Philippines, Brazil, Chile, and Japan before vanishing one day in 1788 in a violent Pacific storm after calling at Botany Bay, Australia.


Louis XVI and Captain Lapérouse.
The picture, by Nicolas André (1754-1837), shows Louis XVI giving Captain Lapérouse instructions for his round-the-world journey of discovery in the presence of the Marquis de Castries, minister of the French Navy, on June 29, 1785.

Oil on canvas (2.72×2.27 m), 1817. Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France. © RMN/Gérard Blot.

Some forty years later in September 1827, Peter Dillon, a South Seas trader, shed the first light on the fate of Lapérouse and his men when he happened upon the wreckage of the expedition north of Vanuatu. He recovered the bell of L’Astrolabe and the bronze muzzle-loading cannon, but there was no trace of La Boussole. Dillon later recounted in his Narrative and Successful Result of a Voyage in the South Seas, to Ascertain the Actual Fate of la Pérouse’s Expedition how local inhabitants had told him that both ships had been thrown onto reefs by a tempest, that some survivors had later built a boat from the wreckage and sailed away, and that two survivors had remained on the island, but had since died.

It was not until well over a century and a half later that new evidence emerged. In the mid-1980s, the two wrecks were identified—L’Astrolabe had foundered on rocks not far from La Boussole, which had run aground on the reefs of Vanikoro. Numerous objects were brought to the surface, land-based digs revealed a camp of the survivors, and the skeleton of an unknown member of Lapérouse’s crew was recovered. These findings came more than two centuries too late to satisfy Louis XVI’s eleventh-hour curiosity, but, as the last pieces of the jigsaw fall into place, we can now affirm: “Yes, we do have news of Monsieur Lapérouse.” _