Diving Into Discovery

Diver underwater.About 670 miles off the east coast of the U.S. lies the island of Bermuda, ringed by a treacherous coral reef that has sent at least 150 ships to a watery grave.

Every year, a dozen daring students travel to this speck in the Atlantic to take part in a course at the Summer Field School in Maritime Archaeology, run by Saint Mary’s Professor James Allan ’70 and Rod Mather of the University of Rhode Island.

Allan is the executive director of the Institute for Western Maritime Archaeology and a sort of underwater Indiana Jones who finds buried treasures both at sea and on land. Beneath the streets of San Francisco, for example, his teams have discovered part of a Gold Rush-era ship and an intact whaling ship. For him the allure is the frisson of excitement when centuries dissolve in a moment of discovery and history becomes heart-stoppingly palpable.

“You’re working underwater—that’s already a little eerie—and you’re working with something that’s old, and there are moments when you have this absolute, positive, direct connection with the past,” he said. “You touch something that you know has never been touched in the last 400 years.  It’s a very powerful thing.”

For the past five years, Allan and the students have been investigating a wooden ship whose identity was a mystery—until this summer, when a student unearthed archival evidence that it is likely a vessel that sank in 1837 called “The Enchantress.” Eureka!

During the four-week field school, students get a crash course in maritime archaeology, carrying out underwater research, conserving artifacts, digging into the archives of the National Museum of Bermuda, and prospecting for other sunken ships. They also come away with a formal certification as a scientific diver.

One of the students in this year’s summer class was senior Don La Barre. He had been dreaming of Bermuda since his senior year in high school, when he took Allan’s evening class in “Conservation of Underwater Artifacts” and caught shipwreck fever.

“I started falling in love with the idea more and more and more,” he said. “It’s so rare to come to a small liberal arts college, which is an amazing school, and find a hidden maritime archaeology program.”

For some students, Allan said, the field school has been “truly a life-changing experience.” Several years ago, three students returned from Bermuda to pursue graduate degrees in maritime archaeology.

Others find a different kind of buried treasure.

“Almost without exception, they come away from it different people,” said Allan. “It’s a challenging thing to do. They’re really nervous in the beginning. And you can see the progression over three weeks. When they’re done, they’re different people—much more confident, more self-assured.” 

Teresa Castle