In these two BBC World Service 23 minute programmes, broadcast in 2008 and 2009, archaeologist Win Scutt plunges underwater to reveal the historical and monetary wealth that lies at the bottom at the sea. And asks the question how should we protect this treasure trove?

Audio Prog 1

Audio Prog 2


Montage mixed with Music:

** Win underwater (heavy breathing): “It’s really quite bright down here. It’s not dark. And I feel totally weightless, totally free. And there it is ! Fantastic ! I can actually see the shipwreck!”

** Laura: “You’re just totally immersed. Literally in a different world. And the fact that you’re still finding real artefacts here. You’re actually uncovering things for the first time.”

** Ballard: « Never forget that. All of sudden, this wall of steel, it’s like the end of the universe. There it was : the statement that you’re not going to go any further. You felt like: « what are you doing here? » »

The simultaneously exciting and eerie world of underwater exploration… I’m Win Scutt, and as a land archaeologist, I’ve been watching with great enthusiasm and occasional envy the recent development of underwater archaeology. Within the last few decades, thanks mostly to modern technology, the gates of a new world under the oceans have been flung open: a world that has preserved several chapters of human history in the forms of harbours, cities, temples, statues and of course shipwrecks.


In the first programme of “What Lies Beneath”, I’ll be exploring this unique world, and finding out what makes it is the most challenging form of archaeology. But also, what it has taught us about ourselves and our history. And with an estimated 3 million undiscovered shipwrecks, still spread across the ocean floors, that journey of discovery has only just begun.

(MUSIC “The Silent World”)

Mankind has always been fascinated by the sea and wanted to explore it further. It is said that back in Ancient Greece, Alexander the Great himself tried to dive down to shipwrecks that he lost. But it is only really with the invention of the aqualung in 1942 by the French explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau that it became possible to reach the underwater traces of human existence located at greater depths.

FX: Bubbles (from The Silent World)

Jacques Cousteau clip (22”)

Jacques CousteauAt the beginning I was shy, I was shy to preach. And people at that time had no idea what was going on under the surface. So my first job was to show what was in the sea, the beauties of it, so that people would know about the underwater world and love it.



And to show the beauty of the silent world as he famously called it, Cousteau not only invented the aqualung, but also pioneered underwater filming and to a large extent, underwater archaeology itself. Back in the early 1950s, he was one of the first to excavate a vessel, in this case a Greek one in the Mediterranean Sea.

Jacques Cousteau clip (20”)

Our intentions are very ambitious. We hope to be able to bring back to the surface the remains of the hull and to abandon the site, only when all traces of the ship have been erased. In fact this enterprise will be the birth of a new science: naval archaeology.

Nic Flemming clip (16”)

Nic FlemmingThe aqualung after 1950 created a sort of explosion of opportunity because tourists, students and young scholars started finding things wherever they went in the water, and that’s really what make it take it off a such terrific rate after the war.

Nic Flemming is a maritime archaeologist who has been diving for several decades now. While the invention of the aqualung made the exploration of the oceans possible, technology has since progressed even further, meaning today such exploration can be done faster and at deeper depths.

Nic clip (19”)

The point about the wonderful new technology it’s somewhere between a thousand and a million times faster. You know computing, laptops and GPS. Things become conceivable. You could consider a project which you wouldn’t have considered 10 or 20 years because of the time scale, data management, and so on and so on. And this means, we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what is to be discovered at the bottom of the ocean floor.

Ulrike KoschtialUlrike Koschtial is responsible for underwater cultural heritage at UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

Ulrike Koschtial clip (29”)

I would say it still is a very recent science because many sites are just now being discovered. You have of course major sites, really major sites, like the palace of Cleopatra in the bay of Alexandria or the remains of the pharaoh’s lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the world, that you can still find underwater or major shipwrecks. Titanic is just one very obvious one but you have a lot of those shipwrecks. And the good thing is that for centuries, millennia, those sites have not been accessible, they have not been touched.


Fuelled by new technologies and the growth of sport diving, underwater archaeology is now booming. But how does it exactly work? And what exactly does it teach us that we couldn’t learn on land? Well, the only way to find out was for me to join an excavation. Which I did, just off the coast of Israel in the Mediterranean Sea.

(ATMOS : Akko old town)

Today, Akko, also known as Acre, is a relatively small Arab town on the Northern coast of Israel, but for most of its history, it was one of the most important cities of the region. Because of the strategic position of its harbour, it was considered to be the main gateway to the East. And just about everyone tried to conquer it: the Crusaders, the Ottomans, and even the French emperor Napoleon himself. And because of such tumultuous history, its harbour is today littered with shipwrecks. One of them is currently being excavated by the Leon Recanati Institute of Haifa. They’re hoping that the shipwreck will shed light on what exactly happened during a battle between Napoleon and the British navy 200 years ago. A battle which had Napoleon not lost, could have possibly changed the course of history.

(ATMOS : Sea)

Akko, Israel from the south

Win :

Well, I’ve come for a paddle now… out in the water, outside the harbour on the beach. Behind me the dive boat is just setting up. They’re going to take a team of divers out to the site. I can see the great medieval walls of the city of Akko in front of me. And down there under the harbour is this fantastic shipwreck which we’re going to work on today…

(ATMOS : Sea )

Yak (Ya'akov Kahanov) brief (23”)

Ya'acov Kahanov« Good morning, you have the forecast for today and tomorrow which means normal set up. But please do everything very carefully, watch yourself, watch the equipment… And in the case we see the conditions getting worse, we get out of the water… So slowly slowly, very carefully. »



Moshe BacharAfter our morning briefing, I teamed up with my buddy, Mosheko, and off we went to work on the wreck…

(ATMOS boat leaving)



Win underwater (2’40)

Breathing…    The water is warm and the visibility is OK. It’s really quite bright down here. It’s not dark. And I feel totally weightless, totally free. Ha ! Ah ! Now I’m coming to something… I can see the yellow cylinder of a diver just looming up in front of me. And below me a whole pile of sandbags. Now I’ve heard about these sand bags. They’re used to weight the finds down when they are discovered. Now as I move closer some more divers. And scaffolding laid on the bottom, kind of steel frame. And there it is ! Fantastic ! I can actually see the shipwreck, long dark timbers. They’ve exposed massive amounts of the wreck. It’s amazing, and much bigger than I expected. It’s still going on. Now I’m told that these are really very sensitive timbers. So I can let my feet go onto them, so I’m holding onto the scaffolding, with my feet behind me up in the air, well up in the water. And I’m actually going to reach down and just pick something up from the bottom. It’s like a dish with a hole in it, just lying there on the bottom of the shipwreck. I guess it’s probably a wooden pulley block of some sort. And I can see one, two and another diver behind me all busily working away. The one I’m just passing here has got his feet wrapped round the scaffolding to anchor him securely. And in the left hand, they’ve got this dredger, this tube sucking up the sediment from the sea bed. And the right hand is kind of wafting the sediment so that it goes into the tube. This is the BBC World Service, I’m Win Scutt. And I’m at the bottom of the harbour in of Akko in Israel, exploring the underwater world of archaeology in What lies beneath. Now I’m coming to a diver who seems to be measuring, and he’s got a waterproof white board that he’s taking measurements on. You can see these blackened timbers. Hundreds of blackened timbers. What an extraordinary job to uncover all this and then to very carefully draw every single timber. And to plan it, map it and to record all the finds. An incredibly intricate task. Now ! I’m now moving up the wreck with my buddy. He’s signalling : am I OK ? with the standard diver symbol. Mosheko has passed a piece of pottery that he has found on the bottom to me. Looks like some kind of wine vessel. Now this is history. This is what is all about. This is what archaeology is for me on the surface, on land archaeology and it’s what makes it so exciting down here.

Win Scutt and Moshe Bachar prepare for dive

The divers, most of them volunteers, carried on working without interruption during the rest of the day, with one team relieving another every hour. Which involves hours and hours of diving… and hours of patience and concentration. And yet, the volunteers there gave up their holidays, paid for their flights and accommodation, and all this to be part of the experience.

Dive boat launches for work on Akko wreck

Keith clip :

This is just the log book that I keep for my own interest. These are just some of the pictures that we took whilst the ship was being revealed for the first time. What we’re looking at now is (fade up)…

One of the volunteers, Keith, took me through his log book, in which he had recorded every single piece of information he could find about the wreck. When they aren’t diving, the people involved in the excavation endlessly discuss what may have happened to the ship. One popular theory is that it was sunk deliberately by the British to stop Napoleon from entering the harbour. One thing that seems for certain is that whether intentionally or not, she was bombarded…

Keith clip (24”)

Then the things that all boys love to hear about and see. You can see some shattered wood and you can see a canon ball sitting on top of what remains of the ship. So instantly, it brings images of canon fire, and ship sinking. And so absolutely wonderful.

Win : it captures that moment of disaster, doesn’t it ?

(Fade atmos)


Not only do the oceans contain a unique testament to the spirit of our ancestors for exploration, they also provide testimony to the various periods and aspects of our history. And the information underwater cultural heritage provides is unique because by being underwater for years if not centuries on end, it has become a fantastic time capsule.


Alex Hildred was one of the archaeologists who worked on the excavation of the Mary Rose back in the early 1980s. The ship which dates back to the England’s 16th century, know as the Tudor period, was almost entirely buried under mud, which meant she took three years to excavate.

Alex Clip (30”)

Alex Hildred, Underwater ArchaeologistIt wasn’t so much seeing as feeling. Because it was pretty cold, very wet, very dark. And rather frightening actually. And I put my hands through this butter like… The texture of soft butter but it’s cold. And that’s what the sediments feel like on the Mary Rose. And it was really frightening because you couldn’t see any more than 10, 15 centimetres. But the sediments in which she was buried also meant that she literally remained frozen in time. Today, having been raised out of the water, the ship and what was found on it can be seen in a museum which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Beside the wreck itself, one of the most popular attractions is what was found in the cabin of the ship’s barber surgeon.

(ATMOS museum) Alex with Win on location at Mary Rose museum

Interestingly the carpenter had a lantern and the barber surgeon didn’t.

Win : But the barber surgeon you’d think he’d have a lantern…

He didn’t. He had a chest, with about 60 objects relating to surgery.

Win : Saws and things like that ?

Yeah, amputation saws, three urethral seringues for the treatment of veneral diseases…

Win : You wouldn’t even get this on land, would you ? You wouldn’t know what was in the typical barber surgeon’s room ?

No you wouldn’t. That’s why something like a shipwreck, which is a living entity. It’s not just a war ship. It’s actually where people lived for a considerable periods of time. Win : It is actually the closest you can get in archaeology to an individual, isn’t it ? It is, it is ! Especially when you’re going into somebody’s cabin. Or more than that, into the person’s cabin, and the chest in his cabin and the poach within the chest that holds the dice that works the backgammon set, which is also folded up and put neatly under one of the work benches in the carpenter’s cabins.

You’re listening to What lies Beneath, from the BBC World Service, with me Win Scutt.

The sea is indeed a great preserver of human history. Biological material such as wood or clothes, is often much better conserved underwater than on land, due to the lack of oxygen, which would have helped it decompose. And this is not only important for shipwrecks. A lot of what used to be land in prehistoric times is now under water. Underwater archaeologist Nic Flemming believes the world’s best prehistoric landscapes are the ones at the bottom of the sea, and that by studying them we could shed new light on how the very first humans lived.

Nic Clip (1’11)

It affects everything. Migration out of Africa, crossing the strait of Gibraltar if they did, first population of Indonesia and Australia, getting from Siberia to Alaska, it’s a huge issue.

Win: I was also wondering whether things might be better preserved. Have we had any chance of finding wooden bows and arrows and all sorts of things from early hunter gatherers?

Absolutely, when you think of it we talk about the Stone Age, names like Palaeolithic and Neolithic are saying old stone and new stone and so on. But we really have almost no clue as to how people used organics at that time. Maybe we should call it the wood age. Or the horn age or the bone age. It’s dominated by the stones, because obviously they are preserved best. Underwater we might start finding that wooden and other organic materials and tools go back much further than we thought.

But while the sea helps preserve our history, it is still after all an alien environment. A reality, which makes underwater archaeology often very challenging, as I found out back at the Akko excavation.

(ATMOS Akko – Loud wind)

 Akko, Israel from the south

WIN Stand up with Bob

Well, I’ve arrived with everybody else here this morning. And unfortunately, we are not being allowed to dive. They tell me it’s all because of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Everybody seems to blame Poseidon around here for this sort of things. Bob, you’re one of the key volunteers on this site. Can you tell me why we can’t dive ?

Bob : One a day on like, you would be pushed from one side of the site to the other, running out of air, perhaps maybe panicking; entrapment with your equipment. When people come across a situation like that they may well panic and try and get to the surface too fast. When you go to the surface too fast after having been underwater for 20, 30 minutes, there is a danger of an embolism. [Win : A burst lung]. There is also what we call shallow water blackout where people, if they’re holding their breath for too long, they just go out unconscious. So there is always a possibility of dying effectively.

Diving wrecks can indeed be very dangerous. One infamous example is the Andrea Doria, an Italian luxury ocean liner which sunk in 1956. Commonly referred to as the "Mount Everest of scuba diving", diving conditions there are considered very treacherous, and have claimed the lives of fourteen divers. Now 60, underwater explorer Lee Spence has been diving wrecks ever since he was 12.

Lee Spence Clip (42”)

Lee Spence, Wreck DiverA lot of times you’ll be in situations that are real dangerous but that are also very painful. You’ve been hurt badly. Depending on how old the shipwreck is, on the more intact ones, you can get lost inside of them, wreckage can collapse, and you can get hung up on stuff. A lot of the work we do is in shallow waters and we will be suing hoses that go to the surface instead of using tanks on your back. I’ve actually had an air hose get caught in the propeller of the boat. And it sort of wound me up like a yoyo. But the difference is when you get all the way in there is a propeller waiting to chop you up. And fortunately my boat captain realised what was happening and shut the engine down. He saved my life that way.


And the dangers associated with diving are a reminder that the sea is also responsible for a great loss of life, and that underwater archaeology is often the result of a human tragedy.

Robert Ballard clip (26”)

Robert Ballard

Never forget that. All of sudden, this wall of steel, it’s like the end of the universe. There it was the statement that you’re not going to go any further. Also the portals. See the Titanic has many portals, and our lights would flash off the glass. And you’d see all these eyes looking back at you. It was very haunting, very eerie, you felt like what you’re doing here.


Dr Robert Ballard the man who discovered the Titanic almost four kilometres down under the sea. Made famous around the world by the Hollywood film of the same name, the sinking of the ship cost the lives of 1500 people.

Ballard Clip (48”)

When we went out there, naturally there was a tremendous interest and concern about whether there would be bodies found lying on the floor or inside. And we were naturally very apprehensive because we were going to be very up close and personal turning corners and wondering what we were going to see. And we started noticing a very strange characteristic. We found where many of the bodies landed and the evidence is not their body, which is disintegrated to dust but their shoes. You have many pairs of shoes sitting exactly the way the body landed. And we found maybe two dozen sets of shoes scattered throughout the debris field. You could tell whether it was a seaman, or a child, or a woman or a passenger. So we do have evidence of where the bodies landed.

While there is a strong argument for saying that shipwrecks are first and foremost human graves and therefore should be left alone, many of the survivors and descendants of the Titanic victims said that finding the ship had actually allowed for some kind of closure. And this is where underwater archaeology can also play a significant role, by helping us reconcile ourselves with our past history.


At the moment, underwater archaeology is mostly done by the richer nations, but a growing number of developing countries are now also realising how important it could be for the understanding of their own history. South Africa only has three maritime archaeologists. But one of them, Jonathan Sharfman is confident that there is growing interest in his discipline, which was previously only associated with the colonial period.


He is currently involved in a project, which aims to find a famous slave ship which was carrying slaves from Madagascar to Cape Town sunk near Cap Agulhas, on the southern tip of Africa. The story of what happened on the ship is considered an important and symbolic chapter in the history of South Africa.

Jonathan Sharfman clip (1’08)

The slaves managed to take over the ship but they needed the Deutsch sailors to navigate and sail the ship for them, they didn’t know how to sail. So they instructed the Deutsch to turn the ship around and sail back towards Madagascar. What the Deutsch would do is that they would sail north during the day and at night, when it was difficult to determine which direction you’re travelling in, they would turn around and they’re making big circles off the coast. So the Deutsch sailors arrived in this bay and dropped anchor and tried to convince the slaves that they were back in Madagascar. Of course, the slaves weren’t convinced and sent out some small parties to try and determine where they were. And as they got ashore, the Deutsch farmers just captured them or killed them as they walked up the beach. In the meantime some fighting broke out on the ship and someone cut off the anchor line and the ship drifted ashore. The slaves tried to get off and were either captured or killed. The story of what happened there is important for South Africa. There are people in the area who believe that they are descendants of those slaves. Some of them escaped into the hills behind the shipwreck site. So there are lot of levels that we can tap into, that I think will make this interesting and that will make inclusive of the entire population of South Africa.


As we’ve heard in this programme, the information provided by studying shipwrecks and other underwater cultural heritage has often proven crucial on a historical but also human level. But as I will be finding out in the second programme of “What Lies Beneath”, such growing interest in underwater cultural heritage is also putting it under threat. Archaeologists around the world are worried that treasure hunters could destroy vital historical sites, before they get the chance to get there. One of them is Greg Stemm.

Greg Clip (57”)

Greg Stemm, Underwater Explorer“I’ve spoken to people that have found bronze cannons on site, picked them up, melted them down and sold them for bronze value. You see pirates all the time out here and you see people picking up artefacts from shipwrecks on a daily basis. And in the next 50 years, I bet we will have completely mapped the bottom of the oceans of the world. We’ll know where every shipwreck is. And it’s up to us to figure a mechanism over the next 50 years to make sure that the data we can garner from them isn’t lost for ever.”


Backanno: Greg Stemm ending there this edition of What Lies Beneath presented by Win Scutt and produced by Estelle Doyle. The series continues next week at the same time.

Go to transcript of Programme 2: The Treasure Hunters

© BBC World Service 2008



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Win Scutt is an archaeologist, lecturer and broadcaster based in Devon, UK.