Peter Throckmorton
(1928-1990)
A Personal Farewell

by George Bass

Adapted from the Summer 1990 INA Newsletter, Volume 17, No. 2

Peter Throckmorton made more than an enormous impact on our field of nautical archaeology. In many ways he invented it. Every inventor comes along at just that moment in time when the pioneers who preceded him or her have brought the state of the art up to a level where it is ready for the next jump. And this is true, too, of nautical archaeology. Pioneer divers in Italy and France and Mexico and Jamaica and the United States, especially, were experimenting with scuba equipment as a tool for underwater archaeology. But it was Peter who made the next, enormous jump when he approached the University of Pennsylvania Museum in 1959 with the news that he had found a Bronze Age shipwreck at Cape Gelidonya, Turkey, and the desire to see it excavated in its entirety to the same standards as were normal on land excavations. Peter came to an institute of archaeologists for help, not to a diving club or a navy. He was a professional photojournalist when he lived for two summers with Bodrum sponge divers to locate ancient shipwrecks, but he had taken courses in archaeology and had spent time on a dry-land excavation.

Although I, as representative of the University Museum, was appointed director of the ensuing excavation, and soon learned to dive, it was Peter who organized the excavation and put together the team, thereby introducing me to INA directors Nixon Griffis and Claude Duthuit, and the late Joan du Plat Taylor, founding editor of the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

During the hot summer of 1960, living in primitive conditions in an oven-like cove and diving from local sponge boats, we talked and schemed and planned daily, trying to decide how to tackle each new problem we faced in carrying land excavation techniques to the sea bed nearly a hundred feet below. At the end of the summer, the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck had become the first ancient wreck ever excavated in its entirety on the sea bed, the first mapped and excavated with an accuracy nearing what was acceptable on land, and the first on which an archaeologist dived to direct excavation on the seabed rather than attempting to direct divers from on deck.

Peter and I never worked together after that summer, but we stayed in touch. When I heard that he died in his sleep at his Maine home on June 5, aged 61, after a good weekend with friends with whom he discussed new and old projects and publications, I wrote a letter to his daughters, Paula and Lucy, and step-children Mark and Sarah Potok. INA director Michael Katzev, who attended a memorial service for Peter in Maine on June 16, told me that this part was read aloud:

I hope that Peter's family realizes what enormous contributions he made to the fields of nautical archaeology and sea history. He was a visionary, often too impatient to devote years and years to follow-up details.

He really conceived of nautical archaeology as it came to be. If he hadn't dared to go to Turkey on his own to look for wrecks in the 1950s, there would be no INA, and no Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University. If he hadn't dreamed of a museum in Bodrum, there would be no Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, now the finest of its kind in the entire Mediterranean. If he hadn't believed it possible to excavate as carefully under water as on land, I never would have been asked by the University of Pennsylvania to go to Cape Gelidonya as an archaeology student with him in 1960.

While I spent years on the details of the Cape Gelidonya and Yassi Ada wrecks, Peter moved on to improve underwater archaeology in Israel and Italy and Greece (I've been invited to dive on the Dokos wreck this summer, the oldest shipwreck known -- found, of course, by Peter). Peter was the first, as far as I know, to realize the potential offered by the last of the clipper ships, in the Falkland Islands. It was he who spotted the rotting hulk of the Elissa in Greece, and paid for her, I believe, with his own money until he could find a maritime history organization to restore her; today she is the pride of Galveston, but I doubt that one in a thousand visitors has any idea of Peter's role in bringing her to Texas.

By then he was already teaching in Florida [Nova University] and becoming active in the Caribbean (and turning another student, former INA president Jerome Hall, onto shipwreck archaeology). Even today, I often use Peter's arguments against treasure hunting, which he was the first to articulate: small third-world nations can make far more money through proper archaeology and well designed maritime museums, because of increased tourism, than by any schemes to "split the gold" with treasure hunters. And Peter's last book is the text for our introductory Nautical Archaeology course here at Texas A&M University.

As I said, Peter didn't stick around to follow a dream once he'd set the wheels in motion. Next week the Bodrum Museum opens a new wing, with dignitaries from several countries in attendance, but Peter had long since left that behind, and was planning new adventures and books.

I have never had so many phone calls before about anyone's death, and I was on the phone to Paris within minutes to tell my close friend, Claude Duthuit -- for it was Peter who had chosen Claude as a member of the Cape Gelidonya staff. Claude called back an hour later, well after midnight in France, just to talk about it. And I felt compelled to write to all of the Gelidonya staff still living, and wrote to friends in Bodrum to break the news to Kemal Aras, the sponge captain who showed Peter the Cape Gelidonya wreck, and still speaks of him with affection and tremendous respect.

All this was because he had a great impact on many lives. A lot of us owe our careers and many of our friendships to Peter. I think that he knew that.

Later, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Peter had willed his library, mostly now in Bodrum, and all of his notes and papers to INA.

Readers of this website can learn more about Peter's pioneering role in nautical archaeology by reading his The Lost Ships (1964) and Shipwrecks and Archaeology (1970), and his National Geographic articles in May 1960, May 1962, and February 1969, all personal accounts. He edited The Sea Remembers: Shipwrecks and Archaeology in 1987.

George Bass (left) and Peter Throckmorton (right) at Cape Gelidonya