New tech, ancient art

A maritime archeologist gives a glimpse into the vast treasures lying at the bottom of the ocean and how they eventually wind up in museums.

Joseph Kleinschmidt

Home to 83,000 objects spanning 5,000 years of human history, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts collection only represents a puny fraction of the artifacts yet to be discovered on the ocean floor. Recent research from the Mediterranean Sea estimates that mariners — and the beginning of humans littering the ocean floor — date back more than 100,000 years.

But none of these baffling statistics seem to make Alexis Catsambis’ voice quiver. As an underwater archeologist who deals in lost civilizations’ sunken scrap, he’s used to a lot of uncertainty.

With teams of academics specializing in everything from marine biology of the Black Sea to the history of the Byzantine Empire, collaboration makes his soggy research less daunting. The above example led to the discovery of several shipwrecks off the coast of Turkey as part of the 2011 Nautilus Expedition.

Catsambis refers to the find as an incredible example of preservation.

“What’s amazing about this, a ship goes down — this is perhaps cliché — but it is like a time capsule,” he said. “It represents a single vessel that went down at one point in time.”

That fact might simply be an old, watered-down line that a middle school teacher would use, but the reality that art from distant cultures remains virtually untouched is nothing to scoff at — the amount of art lost on land remains a mystery because we constantly reclaim the earth.

“An archeology site on land is reused and rebuilt over and over again,” he said. “Therefore, we’ve lost the connection.”

Within the past 12 years, technology for projects like the ones Catsambis undertakes have increased faster than James Cameron could make a sequel to “Titantic.” Satellite coordination and 3-D modeling speed the time needed for deep-sea diving. But Catsambis also admits that as there are more and more efforts to uncover the waterlogged sites, the greater the chance for underwater grave robbing or commercially  interested divers.

“Whether through legal salvage or looting sites, there is a time pressure,” he said.

Along with Catsambis and public museums, robots help survey the shipwrecks submerged. Autonomous and Remote Underwater Vehicles scan dark depths where divers couldn’t feasibly swim.

“It’s about preserving that heritage and sharing it with the public,” he said. “That objective is something that a number of groups can get behind.”

 

At 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Alexis Catsambis will present his recent discoveries and discuss the high-tech methods of excavation and preservation of undersea goods.