Wednesday, 01 May 2002 00:00
Logbook - Marine archaeologist
Vocation: Marine archaeologist
Born: 4 February 1953, Port Stanley, Falkland Islands
Lives: Oxfordshire and South Kensington
Passions: Books and learning, ships and the sea
Life and Career:
Life and career Adventurer, art historian and archaeologist rolled into one, Mensun Bound has earned a reputation for taking on the world’s most challenging underwater excavations. He was born in the Falkland Islands, where his father was acting colonial secretary – the highest appointment bestowed on a Falklander. As with most islanders, Bound spent much of his time on the water, sailing with a ‘disreputable’ uncle who was ‘probably the Falklands’ last true pirate’. He was christened ‘Michael’, but has always been known as ‘Mensun’ (from his frequent mispronunciation of ‘No more medicine’), a childhood nickname that stuck.
Academically gifted, Bound attended a British school in Montevideo, Uruguay, but left in 1969, when he signed on as an ordinary seaman on a tramp steamer working the South Atlantic. When the vessel was sold in 1971, he jumped ship in southern Chile and hitchhiked his way to New York, where he was given a scholarship at Rutgers University. For several years he immersed himself in ancient history, classical archaeology and Greek pottery, paying his way by driving a fork-lift truck in New Jersey and a taxi in New York.
He met his wife, Joanna, at Oxford University while training as a diver with the university’s BSAC branch. Once qualified, he joined a team led by the famous American archaeologist George Bass, who was carrying out excavations in Turkey at the time. In 1980, he started the MARE (Marine Archaeological Research) unit in Oxford, and embarked on a series of groundbreaking projects.
With the help of the then BSAC director Reg Vallintine, he investigated the wreck of an Etruscan vessel off the Italian island of Giglio, which turned out to be the oldest deep-water ship that had ever been found. The project was the subject of a BBC documentary, The Wreck in Campese Bay. Since then, he has carried out many high-profile marine excavations, including work on Nelson’s favourite ship, the Agamemnon, and the German battleship Graf Spee, which was scuttled in the River Plate, Uruguay, at the beginning of the Second World War. Several of his projects have featured on a Discovery Channel television series – Lost Ships – presented by Bound himself. Recently, the MARE team recovered 300,000 intact pieces of Ming porcelain from a 15th-century wreck off Vietnam. The wreck lay at 80m, but the team was nevertheless able to carry out a proper archaeological investigation using saturation diving techniques. Bound is currently Triton Fellow in maritime archaeology at St Peter’s College, Oxford University, and is the author of several academic and popular publications, including The Archaeology of Ships at War (1995) and Lost Ships (1998). He and Joanna have three sons.
What prompted you to take up diving? It was a lot of different strands coming together, I suppose. When you grow up in the Falklands, you practically live on the sea. Falklanders are voracious readers and one of the books that I happened to read was Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World. In the book, he tells of a Mediterranean wreck dive where the divers found ‘marble statuary and bronze figures scattered across the floor as if they had been deck cargo’. Years later I rediscovered the wreck, which lies off the Tunisian town of Mahdia.
Where did you train and when? It was back in 1979 with Oxford University’s BSAC club. The training was good, but more importantly I met my wife Jo. I was doing laps in the pool and it was impossible to keep up with her! I thought I was a useless swimmer, but later discovered that Jo had been a schoolgirl swimming champion.
What are your qualifications? I’m a BSAC second-class diver, and I also have the PADI equivalent. For the saturation diving I underwent professional diver training at a centre in Singapore. I doubt whether the qualification would be recognised by the HSE.
How many dives have you done? No idea. I have never kept any records, but I should imagine we are talking many thousands. My diving tends to be less intensive these days, although I still need to do a fair amount of underwater work. At the research unit we find ourselves dealing with countless pieces of pottery, so marine archaeology becomes largely an issue of data management. We have to stay on top of the documentation of what we find, and all the data has to be managed by what we call our ‘data Jedis’.
What is your best diving experience? It was probably the moment I first clapped my eyes on the Etruscan wreck off Giglio, which had been found by my friend Reggie Vallintine. When we went there in 1981, he wasn’t sure if he could find it again. Luckily, Reggie does something I have never done – he keeps detailed diaries of his dives. He had mentioned a big old grouper that lived in a cave that was above the wreck, so we thought we’d find the wreck if we found the cave. We found the wreck, and I found an aryballos – a small pot used for scents and unguents. Even underwater, I recognised the hand of the man who had painted it as an artist working around 600BC whom we had nicknamed ‘little warrior painter’. This man’s work reached across the millennia and touched me.
What is your worst diving experience? I was working a wreck site with Jo once, and we had measured every little thing. Jo had been working on three painted Greek vases, and covered them up with sand before we left. We returned the next day and found they had been taken by looters. We were so upset that we began breathing like locomotives. We were so preoccupied that we didn’t monitor our air, and ran out of it at 50m. I was able to fin across the sea bed and plug into an emergency bottle just in time, but it was a close thing. On the way up, I looked at Jo and saw that the bottom of her mask was filled with water. It hadn’t leaked – she had been crying throughout the entire dive.
Where have you dived? In Italy – Giglio, the Aeolian Islands, Giannutri Island, Montecristo and the prison island of Gorgona; Marsala, Sicily; Panama; Zakynthos, Greece; Gibraltar; Tunisia; Turkey; Shetland; Alderney; Turks and Caicos; the Dominican Republic; The Straits of Malacca; Vietnam; Cape Verde in the mid-Atlantic; Mozambique; the Magellan Strait, and various places in the UK. I tend to be asked to places to head off treasure hunters. Such an invitation came from the Vietnamese government when they learned that fishermen were hauling up a lot of porcelain from a deep wreck in the South China Sea. The area was rife with pirates, so we had gun-boats to guard us during the excavations. Even then, I literally slept with a gun under the pillow.
Who is your regular buddy? It used to be Jo. She’s more than a wife – she’s a best friend, confidante and a great buddy. These days it tends to be Francis Pope, a dear friend and a masterful manipulator of data – he’s our leading ‘data Jedi’ – who joined the MARE team at the age of 15.
Why do you dive? For me, it’s always been a way to get to the wrecks, but at times it’s nice to dive for the sake of it. Sometimes we go to the Caribbean and do a few dumb tourist dives. We don’t tell them who we are, because it’s so nice to be mothered for a change. When I’m working I don’t take particular pleasure in being underwater, but the unbuttoning of a wreck is still a great moment.
Where do you want to dive next? I’d like to go to the Indian Ocean. There’s a mess of civilisations and cultures there which no one understands – there’s much to be learned.
What equipment do you own? The only thing I seem to have kept over the years is an old Mares mask. Back in the Eighties we were given equipment all the time by manufacturers such as Mares and Scubapro. I even had the first ever dive computer – the Decobrain. I’m pretty bad at looking after my gear – I never wash it and and I don’t understand those divers who obsess over their equipment. It seems to be part of that whole back-slapping, beer-swilling bonhomie that so many divers go in for. Urgh – it kills me.
Which songs would you put on a liveaboard compilation tape? I used to play the theme from Rocky over the ship’s intercom to wake everyone up. I remember also on the wreck at Devil’s Point, Montecristo – a difficult excavation – we used to pipe Chopin nocturnes down to the divers while they were decompressing. It brought them back on deck nicely soothed. I like world music, particularly the work of a blues singer from Cape Verde called Cesaria Evora. She sings these achingly beautiful songs about loss and yearning.
Have you a dive tip that has helped you? My advice to anyone who wants to get involved in underwater archaeology is this – don’t! For most, it’s a life of frustration, and people tend to get involved for the wrong reasons. It tends to attract people who are high on adventure and low on book learning. But archaeology is all about the advance and dissemination of learning and if that isn’t what drives you, you shouldn’t get involved.
Which figure, living or dead, would you like to take diving, and why? I’d love to take Nelson back on to his favourite ship, the Agamemnon, to ask him what it was really like. What was his motivation? I’m fairly certain it was glory.