David Mindell, PhD ‘96, was lying face down on a mattress in the belly of NR-1, the U.S. Navy’s only noncombatant nuclear submarine, 900 meters below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. It was the summer of 1997, and he was on a deep-sea exploration with a group of researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, MIT, and a handful of other research establishments. They were trying to determine whether ancient shipwrecks that had been discovered two years earlier were archaeologically valuable, and they were searching for other wrecks in the area. Mindell was staring at the seafloor through a seven-and-one-half-centimeter window on the bottom of the sub, waiting to see whether the sonar soundings the crew had wanted to pursue were natural outcroppings of the seafloor or another shipwreck.
The sub’s thallium iodide lights painted the seafloor a murky green. Suddenly, the scene below the window changed. The vessel was passing over two piles of ceramic jars, or amphorae, stacked in the now disintegrated hull of an ancient trading ship. It was, says Mindell, the most thrilling moment of his young career. On the basis of other ruins found in the area, he knew the wreck had to be at least 2,000 years old. As he watched the amphorae slip from view, he realized that those ancient jars had probably been resting in that exact spot on the sea bottom since before the birth of Jesus, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the birth of modern science, and that he was the first person to have seen those jars since the ship had foundered so long ago. In fact, that wreck, which would be dubbed Skerki D-the fourth shipwreck to be discovered on the Skerki Bank between Sicily and Tunisia-was the largest ancient shipwreck found in deep water. The discovery of this Roman trading ship of the first-century b.c.e. and the work on the site during that expedition would mark the beginning of a new scientific field: deep-sea archaeology.
Since the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, deep-sea exploration has caught the public’s interest. For engineers, oceanographers, archaeologists, and other scientists, finding such phantom ships is just the beginning of the quest to understand ancient cultures through the remains of the vessels. But the quest is no small feat. Doing painstaking archaeological work at depths of up to 6,000 meters presents the most challenging problems in ocean robotics today. Since the discovery of Skerki D, Mindell, an MIT professor of the history of technology and of engineering systems, has been working to solve some of those engineering problems, and in the process he has been laying the intellectual foundations of a new academic discipline. He has put together numerous seminars on deep-sea archaeology and organized two national conferences, all at MIT. He established the DeepArch Research Group at the Institute in 1998 and has attracted graduate students to work with him here. And since last year, the U.S. government has made federal grant money available for deep-sea archaeology. Mindell believes the Institute is the place for that research to flourish. “MIT is a place where there are a lot of engineers who like hard problems,” he says, “and there are plenty of hard problems in deep-sea archaeology.”