Deborah Carlson

Nautical Archaeologist

Expeditions Council Grantee

Photo: Deborah Carlson's team recovers an underwater artifact

Photograph by Don Frey

Photo: Deborah Carlson

Photograph by Don Fey

Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois

Current City: College Station, Texas

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

The memories are fuzzy but I think my chosen career had something to do with animals. I don't recall ever being driven by an overwhelming need to be near or under the sea, which is now my summer workspace. In fact, working in some of the same conditions today that caused ships to sink many centuries ago has given me a healthy dose of respect for the delicate and often volatile relationship that exists between humans and the sea.

How did you get started in your field of work?

My parents only ever insisted I do two things while growing up—one was learn how to scuba dive and the other was study Latin. Reading the words of Caesar, Cicero, and Vergil in high school Latin got me hooked on the world of the Romans. In college I went on to study classics and classical archaeology and eventually I realized that there was an entire discipline devoted to the excavation and study of ancient ships and their sunken cargoes.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to nautical archaeology?

The knowledge that shipwrecks are a nonrenewable resource and that there are plenty of people who prefer to pull them apart and sell off the contents rather than mine them for every iota of historical information through controlled archaeological excavation, proper conservation, and scientific analysis. My mentor George Bass is fond of pointing out that, if human beings took to the sea 10,000 years ago, and lost one ship every year, then there ought to be at least 10,000 shipwrecks out there awaiting discovery! Think about what happens to that number when whole fleets were involved!

What's a normal day like for you?

It depends a lot on the day! During the academic year a normal day consists of teaching a university course or seminar (which I truly enjoy), reading and editing student work or articles for INA (Institute of Nautical Archaeology) publications, making various administrative decisions, answering what feels like a thousand e-mail messages, and trying to further my own research in whatever time is left. Since funding for archaeology is always a challenge, one of the more rewarding responsibilities of being the president of INA has been playing matchmaker: Connect the right people with one another, with projects, with equipment, etc. During the summer excavation season a normal day consists of two decompression dives, moving oxygen bottles, making dive rosters, cataloging artifacts, washing dishes, and with any luck a short nap!

Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?

That's hard to say because there are so many individual qualities that I admire in so many people who are around me every day. The people I admire most are the ones who find a way to balance a little bit of everything in life—family, friends, work, leisure, exercise. It takes real discipline these days and in our culture to notice, appreciate, and enjoy the little things.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?

Well there was the time I dived down to my excavation area to raise several artifacts in the 20 minutes allotted to me and found instead a six-foot moray eel coiled like a cobra and showing no inclination to relocate (he won the argument and I worked elsewhere that day). It's pretty hard to top the thrill of waving away the sand to expose an object that no one else has seen or touched for 25 centuries. And it sounds corny, but with that experience one forges a connection to certain artifacts and that connection brings with it a sense of responsibility to protect them. Certainly one of the most precious and rewarding aspects of fieldwork is seeing the way a team of 20 people, some of whom have never met, becomes, after 12 weeks working, eating, and living together in almost complete isolation, as close-knit as any family.

What are your other passions?

With a two-year-old I'm not sure I really have time for passion(s) but gardening and cooking have become important creative outlets. I'm addicted to Top Chef!

What do you do in your free time?

There isn't much of it, but every year I try to carve out some time for travel with family, ideally to a place with sand.

If you could have people do one thing to help save artifacts, what would it be?

It would be to not buy artifacts, even coins. Primarily because it destroys the one thing that archaeologists rely on most: context. To take the contents of a tomb or a shipwreck or a coin hoard or even a garbage can and separate them (to say nothing of selling them for personal profit) is to destroy the information that is fundamental to archaeological research: the knowledge of what objects were found together, where, and in what relationship to one another. But also because it is disrespectful not to acknowledge that archaeological artifacts are the physical remains of human history and as such they belong to all of us—and none of us at the same time.


In Their Words

It's pretty hard to top the thrill of waving away the sand to expose an object that no one else has seen or touched for 25 centuries.

—Deborah Carlson


Listen to Deborah Carlson

Hear an interview with Carlson on National Geographic Weekend.

  • 00:08:00 Deborah Carlson

    Not all treasures are universally valued. Deborah Carlson, National Geographic grantee and President of theInstitute of Nautical Archaeology, spends many days diving in the Aegean Sea hunting for treasures. But the things she hopes to find are from Bronze Age wooden ships that mostly have decomposed. She is able to find out much about the ships from a small piece of biological material, like wood, that may be revealing about the ship's cargo or workers.

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