Although he began reading everything he could find on diving at an early age, and had more books about the underwater world than about archaeology even when he was a graduate student, George Bass never dreamed that he would ever dive. Certainly not that one day he would receive the Historical Diving Society's Pioneer Award.
His diving began in 1960, shortly after he began doctoral studies in classical archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. He already had an M.A. in Near Eastern archaeology from The Johns Hopkins University, and between 1955 and 1957 had attended the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, where he gained field experience by assisting on preclassical terrestrial excavations in Greece and Turkey. From 1957 to 1959 he had learned how to direct and take care of people in remote camps while serving as the lieutenant-in-charge of a 30-man U.S. Army detachment in Korea.
So George already had the interest and most of the needed experience when, soon after his arrival in Philadelphia, he was asked by his department chairman if he would learn to dive in order to excavate a Late Bronze Age shipwreck reported by journalist Peter Throckmorton off the Turkish coast. In early 1960, after taking six diving lessons at a local YMCA, he left with Peter for Turkey, where he directed the excavation of the wreck, about a hundred feet deep off Cape Gelidonya. It was the first ancient wreck excavated in its entirety on the seabed, and the first shipwreck excavation directed and published by a diving archaeologist. At the end of the excavation, with permission from the Turkish government, George started a museum of underwater archaeology in the Bodrum castle; now fully Turkish, it is the nation's most visited archaeological museum.
George concluded that the ship, which sank around 1200 B.C. with a cargo of copper and tin ingots, and scrap bronze, was Near Eastern in origin. He further claimed, based on contemporary cuneiform documents and Egyptian tomb paintings, that such ships were common in the Mediterranean, although most scholars then believed that Canaanite, or early Phoenician, maritime commerce began only in the following Iron Age. George believed the Semites had not been recognized because their goods, raw materials like tin, copper, ivory, and gold, left no traces once they reached port and were manufactured into artifacts typical of the importing cultures. His controversial view was widely scorned.
George devoted the rest of the 1960s to the development of new techniques for underwater research while excavating Byzantine, Late Roman and Ottoman shipwrecks at Yassı Ada, Turkey: a submersible decompression chamber without surface support; a method of mapping wrecks by stereo-photogrammetry; and a two-person submersible, the Asherah, launched in 1964, the year he received his doctorate and joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty. To tend Asherah, the first commercially built American research submersible, he acquired on loan from the U.S. Navy an Army T-boat, Virazon, which he shipped to the Aegean. In 1967 his team was the first to locate an ancient wreck with side-scan sonar, a 280-foot-deep site inspected from Asherah.
In 1968, George returned to land to assist the Greek excavation at of a Bronze Age city covered by volcanic ash on the island of Santorini. Then, after another campaign at Yassi Ada, and a sabbatical year at the University of Cambridge, he decided to return to terrestrial archaeology and in 1971 began excavating a preclassical site in southern Italy.
He soon regretted leaving a field with such promise and formed the American Institute of Nautical Archaeology in 1972, when he gave the University of Pennsylvania a year's notice of his resignation. AINA's first field project was a Turkish coastal survey that located a dozen ancient shipwrecks, three since excavated, including a cargo of large jars lost around 1600 B.C. at a place called Sheytan Deresi, or Devil Creek. AINA was based on Cyprus, but war on the island in 1974 forced it to seek another home, which it found at Texas A&M University, with which it affiliated in 1976. Texas A&M in turn initiated a graduate program in nautical archaeology, which George headed until 1993.
AINA, which dropped the "American" to reflect its international staff and board of directors, becoming simply INA, quickly expanded its research to four continents. George began the first excavations of shipwrecks of the American War of Independence, the American Defence in Penobscot Bay, Maine, and one of General Cornwallis’s British ships in the York River, Virginia, before turning them over to other scholars.
Between 1977 and 1979 George excavated at Serçe Limanı, Turkey, an 11th-century A.D. ship with three tons of broken glass; mended from a million shards over 20 years, it is the largest collection of medieval Islamic glass in existence. The site also yielded the largest collections of Byzantine tools and weapons, the world’s oldest dated chess set, and the earliest known modern hull, as opposed to Greco-Roman hulls. In 1979, INA bought the old Virazon and outfitted it with a double-lock recompression chamber and equipment for underwater surveys and excavations.
In 1984, George began excavating a ship lost around 1300 B.C. at Uluburun, Turkey. Its cargo of raw materials—elephant and hippopotamus ivory, nearly 200 glass ingots, half a ton of terebinth resin (used as incense), ebony logs, a ton of tin ingots, and ten tons of copper ingots—as well as Near Eastern personal possessions, provided evidence that George’s theory of Bronze Age Near Eastern trade, presented in his book on the Cape Gelidonya wreck, was likely correct. After 1985, George turned the Uluburun excavation over to graduate student Cemal Pulak, now on the Texas A&M University faculty.
Between 1999 and 2003, George excavated fifth- and six-century B.C. wrecks in Turkey with Deborah Carlson and Elizabeth Greene. During that time, INA acquired the two-person submersible Carolyn and built a 45-foot catamaran to transport, launch and retrieve it. In just one month in 2001, archaeologists in the submersible located 14 wrecks and ten possible wrecks, while revisiting a dozen wrecks known from earlier surveys.
In 1986 George received the Archaeological Institute of America's Gold Medal for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement, and a Lowell Thomas Award from the Explorers Club. The next year he received an honorary doctorate from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, and in 1998 another from the University of Liverpool. The National Geographic Society awarded him its La Gorce Gold Medal in 1979 and, in 1988, one of its fifteen Centennial Awards. In 1999 he received the JC Harrington Medal from The Society for Historical Archaeology. President George W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of Science in 2002.
George has written or edited ten books and over a hundred articles. He and his wife Ann divide their time between College Station, Texas, and Bodrum, Turkey, where they have a house next to the INA Research Center.