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Out of the Depths: A History of Shipwrecks

02 May 23


(Reaktion Books – £25)

ISBN 9781789146196

320 pages

The antiquity of many ships and the familiarity of their stories make it easy to underestimate how much the discovery of shipwrecks is in large part a modern phenomenon. Most positive identifications have occurred in the last 60 years, and as technology has rolled back the oceans, in have come conservation, ethical, political and commercial issues about how to deal with this inheritance. The development of maritime archaeology since the 1960s together with some progress in conservation laws have created standards of best practice in managing wreck assets. However, unscrupulous thefts and other exploitation of vulnerable sites are among the continuing difficulties in protecting wrecks, and significant further work remains in putting together an international framework to enable solutions.

Alan G Jamieson’s Out of the Depths begins with an introductory refresher of shipwrecks in art and literature, before changing tack into the shipwreck histories themselves. In the largest section there is an engaging dual narrative, combining the original shipwreck and subsequent discovery stories through ages and continents, from ancient Mediterranean times to the present day. A shorter final section highlights the activities of treasure hunters, lured to wrecks by fables and – occasionally – hauls of gold, wreck finders and marine archaeologists, along with some of the competing interests that can arise from their different viewpoints. A short section on environmental threats from modern wrecks such as super-tankers closes the book.

Jamieson’s measured style is sympathetic to the seafarers whose perils he relates. As is to be expected, few of the stories turn out well, but the older tragedies yield insights from undersea time capsules, more recent ones, safety and environmental lessons. Established stars of the deep like the Mary Rose and the Titanic are placed in context alongside lesser-known peers, with intricate and personal details often emerging from the wreckage. The evidence shows that prior to the 20th century, a naval force was substantially more at risk from the elements than from the enemy, who in turn was more interested in capturing opponents’ vessels than destroying them. A mix of factors altered these equations, including the increased size of ships and more varied and powerful naval weaponry. The impact of submarines, both aggressors and victims, and aircraft is evident in the vessels they have rendered obsolete and the shipwrecks they created in doing so.

The book’s scope is broad, and it sets out to be an introduction to the subject. The author also makes clear that in writing during the COVID-19 pandemic he largely relied on publicly available material rather than new original sources. Each of these things may limit the book’s appeal to Naval Review members looking for in depth analysis. Readers will also be aware of wrecks not mentioned, such as HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, vulnerable to exploitation in Far Eastern waters, and SS Richard Montgomery, lying with a potentially explosive cargo near the Medway Approach Channel. However, this is a smooth and enjoyable traverse of significant shipwrecks, and draws out interesting comparisons between eras by taking on so many in one volume. In the course of a readable and well-illustrated re-telling of some of the best shipwreck stories, it also touches on questions as disparate as who should escape a sinking ship first and whether it is ever right to bring up artefacts from a shipwreck which is a grave site. It is always encouraging to see a book which gives credit to maritime archaeology pioneers and their successors who work to identify, preserve and share underwater heritage responsibly and in challenging circumstances. Shipwrecks are subject to constant and inevitable decay, and time is of the essence for those who capture the insights they offer.