Neil Cunningham Dobson
Shipwrecks are the stuff of myth and legend, perhaps because many remained beyond the grasp of humanity for centuries. However, through a combination of modern technologies and an enthusiastic community of innovative professionals, the submerged ruins of ships past are now ripe for exploration. In addition to long lost trinkets and treasures, shipwrecks provide direct links with our seafaring ancestors, and can offer valuable insights into the lives of previous generations.
Neil Cunningham Dobson, a favourite of the Discovery Channel's 'Treasure Quest'
and Principal Marine Archaeologist for Odyssey Marine Exploration, discusses the perks of his job, and how he became known as The People's Arch…
I try to paint a captivating picture of the ship and the people who sailed on her, how they lived and what was important in their lives, in order to show how these discoveries impact our lives todayHow did you become interested in underwater archaeology?
Neil Cunningham Dobson
At school my best subject was history, but I wanted to see the world so I joined the British Merchant Navy and served my apprenticeship as a deck officer. I took up diving and then got my Commercial Diving certification. I knew then that I could combine my love of history with diving to explore and document shipwrecks.Where did you go to school to become an archaeologist?
I had a very successful career in the Merchant Navy, then in the offshore oil industry on semi-submersible and jack-up oil rigs and then as an offshore marine survival instructor/examiner. Afterwards I decided I wanted to pursue my true passion and become a marine archaeologist. My local university, St Andrews, offered a Master's programme in marine archaeology. I completed my Master's (MLitt) in Maritime Studies with a distinction for my portfolio work.How did you earn the nickname 'The People's Arch'?
I got this nickname from my Odyssey shipmates while working on the SS Republic
shipwreck. I am very fond of this nickname. My most important goal is to share the stories revealed by the artefacts and the remains of the ship with the world - not just with other archaeologists. I try to paint a captivating picture of the ship and the people who sailed on her, how they lived and what was important in their lives, in order to show how these discoveries impact our lives today. Hence, 'The People's Arch'.What are your responsibilities as the Principal Marine Archaeologist?
I am responsible for all things archaeological. I observe and direct the work of the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) on every dive when we survey, investigate and excavate shipwrecks. The ROV is my archaeological eyes and hands on the shipwreck site. I also have the responsibility of ensuring that all artefacts recovered are documented, photographed and receive first aid conservation until I can land them ashore and hand them over to the conservator. I have to ensure that all the necessary data from the site is collected for the writing and publishing of various papers, reports and conference presentations. I never tire of exploring shipwrecks. Every time we dive, who knows what we will see or discover? I do think that I have the best job in the world.Tell us about the Odyssey Marine Exploration paper that you co-authored: 'A Late 17th-Century Armed Merchant Vessel in the Western Approaches (Site 35F)'
This new paper presents the archaeological investigation of what may be a Royal Africa Company merchant vessel operating in the mid to late 1600s. This was determined from the study of the site as well as the artefacts recovered, including manilla bracelets, ivory tusks, and a wooden folding rule, the earliest such example found on a shipwreck. The site also revealed 36 cannon and quite a few ivory tusks. We recovered and studied one of the tusks before returning it to the sea floor. If our theory on the identity of 35F is correct, it is the westernmost example of a West African trader, the only example of this date known off the UK, and the first Royal Africa Company shipwreck identified worldwide. You can read the paper in its entirety by clicking here
.What is the most interesting thing you've seen while exploring shipwrecks?
Wow, this is a tough question. I have looked at hundreds of shipwrecks from all periods of history and I have seen many strange things underwater. All shipwrecks are interesting to me. I would say that surveying my first German U-boat was fascinating and a boyhood dream come true. Exploring the HMS Victory
site was amazing because all those bronze cannon make a wonderfully interesting site to study. The most intriguing object for me was a lead ingot from a site in the western Mediterranean. It was in the shape of a moccasin sandal or leather shoe. Someone had impressed their footprint in the sand and filled it with molten lead. I still wonder what the purpose of this was and who that person may have been.
What is your fondest memory aboard the Odyssey Explorer?
Cannon from HMS Victory
All my trips on the Odyssey Explorer
are memorable and I hope to have many more. I remember observing on the SS Republic
wreck site a large shark circle the ROV with its back arched ready to attack as we were recovering artefacts. Working with the various producers and film crew that have produced documentaries about Odyssey over the years has been fun; I have learned a lot about TV and how they compress time to tell a story. The fondest moments are when all the crew is out ashore enjoying a meal and a well-deserved beer. I have the privilege of working with some of the most talented shipwreck exploration professionals in the world and along with the ship's captains and crew they are my second family.What is it like to be the person who first sees artefacts that have been lost for long periods of time?
It is really an honour and privilege to discover and handle artefacts for the first time. After all, they played an important role in a past life or were part of a ship's history and typically have a great story to tell. I always wonder about the person who may have held the object before it was lost at the bottom of the sea.Who was your role model growing up?
My late mother and father were my true role models. Growing up I read and learned about my seafaring Cunningham family ancestors who were sea captains, lifeboat coxswains, whalers, and fishermen, and who also served in the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy. As an archaeologist my role model is Odel Blundel, the late 19th, early 20th Century diving monk. He was a pioneer like myself, and never gave up.This article was reproduced with the permission of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. Click here to view the interview in its original format.