Mark Polzer

Maritime Archaeologist

Expeditions Council Grantee

Bajo de la Campana Excavation, La Manga, Spain--Mark Polzer as he prepares to descend for his PM dive.

Photograph by Susannah H. Snowden

Birthplace: Midland, Texas

Current City: Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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

Growing up, there was never just one thing that I was interested in or wanted to be. I found so many things fascinating and exciting. But, looking back, they all involved exploration, whether it was astronomy or space travel or art or archaeology. I suppose that is one of the aspects of archaeology that I love: it involves so many fields and disciplines and subjects, from both the sciences and humanities.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I took a somewhat circuitous path to archaeology. My father was an engineer for a major petroleum company, and we spent my entire childhood living abroad in various countries. We lived in Libya when I was a young boy and early teenager, and enjoyed amazing experiences traveling around the Mediterranean and visiting some of the most remarkable sites from the ancient world. It was then that I was smitten by ancient history and archaeology. My father also taught my brothers and me to SCUBA dive then, and my love for the undersea world has continued to grow ever since. When my brothers and I weren't in the sea snorkeling or diving, we could usually be found walking through the Libyan desert searching for prehistoric stone points and tools, Roman coins, or artifacts left from the Second World War. However, when eventually I returned to the United States to attend university, I never imagined that I could follow that path to a career. I studied engineering instead and went on to a successful young career in the petrochemical business. But the desire to study and pursue archaeology never left me, and eventually I realized that there was nothing stopping me from fulfilling that dream...but me. So, I applied to graduate school to study nautical archaeology, which combined my two passions-things maritime and things ancient. When I was accepted, I knew that it was meant to be. The rest, as they say, is history.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to archaeology?

From my first dive with my Dad as a ten-year-old to my last this summer, I've always learned or experienced something new each time I've entered the ocean world. The more I learn about the ocean, about the life it nurtures and the secrets it holds, the more I love and respect it. In terms of archaeology, the ocean is the world's single greatest museum. The cultural resources it contains, as repository of so many shipwrecks, material objects, and submerged sites, preserve for us an astonishing amount of information about peoples and cultures from throughout our history. But just like much of the sealife in the ocean, our submerged cultural heritage is disappearing as well, and at an alarming rate. I hope that my work will help preserve some of that legacy and the information gleaned from it for future generations, and that it will inspire others to a greater awareness of this amazing asset and the dangers that threaten it.

What's a normal day like for you?

That all depends on the time of year. I spend most summers in the Mediterranean conducting fieldwork. For the past five years, that has meant directing the underwater excavation of an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Spain. My team and I make two dives on the wreck each day, six days a week, then spend hours, once back on shore, recording all of the artifacts we recover and processing all of our collected data. The days are long and exhausting, but very rewarding. The work is physically and mentally demanding, but those times when we find something truly amazing or unexpected make any discomfort worthwhile. During the rest of the year, when I am at home in Adelaide, I spend my days (and nights) in front of my computer in the office, or in the library or laboratory, researching and analyzing all of the finds from the shipwreck. Of course, presenting papers at conferences, traveling back to Spain to work on the wreck material at the museum where it is being stored and conserved, fundraising and planning for the next field season, and various other responsibilities keep me always on the go. My wife is an archaeologist as well and a university faculty member, so she too travels a good deal for her own projects and research. We've had to get use to being apart for long stretches of time, which is one drawback to our situation. But the moments of discovery we enjoy, the interesting places we get to see, the sites we are privileged to excavate, and the incredible people with whom we get to work far outweigh any such disadvantages.

Do you have a hero?

My personal heroes are the members of my incredible family, especially my parents, who gave us such an amazing childhood, full of adventure and wonder and opportunity. They provided us the freedom and means to explore our world and follow our dreams. They are the most generous people I know, and dedicate so much of their time and energy and resources to helping others, all in a quiet and unassuming way. They and so many others in our world today who reach out and help their neighbors, their communities, their world-whatever the particular cause-in their own quiet way, without recognition or reward or acclaim, but simply because it is the right thing to do, they are the true heroes that we should all admire and emulate.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

It's difficult to single out one from so many amazing experiences that I've enjoyed, but I suppose it would have to be the first dive I made on an ancient shipwreck site. I had just finished my first year of graduate school and was participating in my first ever underwater excavation. The site was a Classical Greek shipwreck off the southern coast of Turkey. I hadn't been back to the Mediterranean in a good many years, and just the sight of the breathtaking, azure waters evoked so many memories and emotions from my youth. I can recall so vividly my first descent to the site, some 45 meters below the surface, and my first glimpse of the amphoras and other wreckage from the ship. Realizing that those remains had lain there on the bottom, undisturbed, for over 2,400 years, and recognizing as well the tragedy that had occurred there, left me awestruck and humbled.

Fieldwork is always challenging, but that's also what makes it so rewarding. Each site I have excavated is different and has its own set of challenges, from the people with whom I collaborate, to the sea conditions in which we work, to the topography of the seabed. But, as I have learned many times over, each new set of challenges also brings new opportunities to grow.

What are your other passions?

The greatest passions of my life are my faith and family. I also am passionate about young people, and about teaching them and nourishing them to become free thinkers and adults who are not afraid to make their own way in life and to stand up for what they believe. Equally important, if not more so, is learning from them; they have so much to offer our world.

What do you do in your free time?

I like to run; it's my "alone" time when I shed stress, clear my mind, and allow my imagination to roam free. I also love to read, watch a good movie with my wife, cook, and entertain friends and family.

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

From indiscriminate bottom trawling that rapes the ocean's floor, destroying habitat and cultural sites alike, to salvagers and their backers who see only the monetary value of ancient shipwrecks, the undersea environment is under threat. Unfortunately, treasure hunting is still glamorized in film and print, and far too often misrepresented as archaeology. This is especially true when it comes to maritime archaeology and is reflected in people's attitudes toward underwater sites. Whereas few people would condone bulldozing the Giza Pyramids or the Parthenon of Athens in the hopes of finding a mummy or statue or other treasure inside, many have no such problem with treasure hunters blasting through the wooden hulls and more mundane cargoes of shipwrecks to get at gold bullion or silver coins stashed inside. The underlying problem is that most people simply are not aware of the real nature and value of the archaeological material to be found on the ocean's floor, nor do they understand the difference between salvage and archaeological excavation. While a very small fraction of shipwrecks may contain fabulous "treasure," the real value of all underwater sites-be they sunken ships, submerged settlements, military planes or vessels, spilled cargoes, or whatever-is the information that they contain, which is almost always lost when subjected to for-profit salvage. I would urge everyone then to learn about the ocean in its totality, including its man-made contents, and realize just how important and fragile it all is. Only once we appreciate the value of our cultural heritage in the ocean, and recognize that it belongs to all of us, and to posterity, will we be prompted to act to preserve it.

In Their Words

Only once we appreciate the value of our cultural heritage in the ocean, and recognize that it belongs to all of us, and to posterity, will we be prompted to act to preserve it.

—Mark Polzer

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