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Diving into History

Classical studies professor Nicolle Hirschfeld excavates ancient shipwrecks

By Russell Guerrero ’83

Nicolle Hirschfeld prepares for a dive

July 2010 — When she was a college student majoring in archeology, Nicolle Hirschfeld, now an assistant professor of classical studies at Trinity, heard the news of an amazing discovery: a shipwreck from 1300 B.C. had been located off the coast of Turkey. Known as the Uluburun shipwreck, nautical archeologists found a king’s ransom in treasure from the Late Bronze Age.  

By the time archeologists went back to the shipwreck for the second season of excavation, Hirschfeld had become a graduate student at Texas A&M University and was part of the team helping with the underwater fieldwork. Her mentor was George Bass, director of the project and widely known as the father of nautical archeology. Hirschfeld would work on the Uluburun site for several more years along with Bass. She is even pictured in the December 1987 issue of National Geographic in scuba gear cradling an urn and walking on copper ingots lying on the seafloor.

Occasionally, Hirschfeld, Bass, and other team members would explore another shipwreck close by.  Known as the Cape Gelidonya wreck, the remains of the ship contained a modest cargo, but it was still considered a groundbreaking site. In 1960, Bass, then a graduate student from the University of Pennsylvania, made history by becoming the first trained field archeologist to scuba dive. Before then, scuba diving, invented around the time of World War II, was mainly done by Navy divers.

Hirschfeld said nostalgia drove a return visit but the team soon found that artifacts had been overlooked during the first excavation.  Helped by advances in nautical archeology, the team made discoveries that deepened understanding of what life was like during the Late Bronze Age. Still, the excavation of the Gelidonya was only a side project and the archeologists knew they would have to return at another time for a more thorough search. 

It’s now been 50 years since the first dive at the Gelidonya, and this summer Hirschfeld is returning to the site as the archeologist in charge of the fieldwork. “We’re going back for two reasons,” said Hirschfeld. “The first is to re-explore the wreck itself and to find the bits and pieces that were missed. And secondly, to follow the debris trail, where we will find bigger pieces.”

Accompanying her will be Bass as well as some members of the original team.  “It will be fun to hear the stories of what it was like back then,” said Hirschfeld

When she returns to Trinity, Hirschfeld plans to share her research with students.  “I teach a course called the Minoan-Mycenaean Civilization and we will be talking about what we found,” she said. “This shipwreck is a great way to introduce that time period to the students. It’s information that is not in a book yet and the students enjoy hearing about my field experiences.”

Courses Taught

  • The Minoan-Mycenaean Civilization
  • Pirates, Merchants, and Marines: Seafaring in the Ancient Mediterranean
  • Introduction to Classical Archaeology
  • Classical Mythology

Selected Publications

“Cypro-Minoan,” The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean, Oxford University Press, 2009.

“Cypriot pottery,” Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C., Yale University Press, 2008.

 “How and Why Potmarks Matter,” Near Eastern Archaeology, 2008.

© 2010 Trinity University

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