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Excerpt: "...[Bass] recognized a potential solution to the complex requirements of underwater archaeology..."

Early in his career, George Bass understood technology would define the future of underwater archaeology and his career. Scuba gear made it possible to breathe underwater, but in addition, archaeologists had to be able to locate a wreck, then explore, accurately record, and preserve or conserve physical remains and contents. These were each extremely time-consuming tasks. Any means of cutting minutes off diving time, days off mapping, and weeks off a season’s schedule meant reducing the cost of fuel, food, support ship rental, and insurance, which eliminated thousands of dollars from a sparse budget. 

In 1963 George Bass concluded that he needed a submarine. When he spotted a two-man “sport submarine” in a Newsweek article, he recognized a potential solution to the complex requirements of underwater archaeology, particularly the paramount need to breathe safely and work quickly. Excavators on land could dig from sunup until sundown, but in a deepwater environment, they were physiologically restricted to a fraction of that time; in the 1960s, working at a depth of even 100 feet pushed recommended limits for non-professional scuba divers.  “A properly designed submersible…might allow two men to accomplish more in a day than could be done by a dozen or more divers, and at the same time allow them to work deeper.” Bass wrote. (Rosencrantz. Paper, p. 338)


After Bass sent Wlady Illing on a cross-country shopping trip to explore their options, Electric Boat, a division of General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut, learned of his interest via the industry grapevine, and contacted the archaeologist. Competition had been mounting to build the first commercial made-to-order submersible, and, in addition, the Navy was interested in testing underwater lights, cameras and transponders for navigation. While Bass explored development of a sub for archaeological exploration, the DSV Alvin, a three-person deep-diving submersible, was being built by General Mills for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “People thought of a submarine as an observation platform, but it was so maneuverable, I wanted to use it to map a site,” says Bass. “I thought for archaeology we can use a manipulator and an airlift so the silt and sand didn’t have to be dealt with so carefully. It would spare the diver time and effort moving the overburden [upper level of earthen material].” [Interview 9/25/15].


Riding a wave of professional visibility, Bass successfully pitched to the University of Pennsylvania Museum the idea of building a research submarine that would support underwater survey and mapping, extend bottom time, and supplement physical site excavation. A contract with the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics was signed, and, in January 1964, construction began on the first U.S. submarine designed specifically for underwater archaeology. It was just four years after Bass and Peter Throckmorton had begged for tattered Army surplus tents and mattresses for the Gelidonya expedition.


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