The undersea world of URI’s Rod Mather

KINGSTON, R.I.– September 16, 1999 — When it comes to archaeology, Ian Roderick Mather-Rod for short-is all wet. When the 34-year-old Englishman isn’t teaching maritime history at the University of Rhode Island, he’s donning scuba gear and systematically gridding off areas around a shipwreck. The North Kingstown resident’s latest venture is probing Newport Harbor to determine whether an old shipwreck buried in under several feet of mud is the HMS Endeavour, the long-lost ship that Captain Cook sailed around the world. Mather is joined by a team of maritime archaeologists from Rhode Island and Australia-a country raised on the lore of Cook. After all, it was Cook who mapped out the geography of the South Pacific. Earlier this summer, Mather was site manager on a project involving the HMS Cerberus, a British frigate sunk during the siege of Newport during the American Revolution. The ship was located during the 1970s by URI oceanographers who surveyed Narragansett Bay. Mather directed on-site operations for the Rhode Island Marine Archeology Project and was assisted by divers from the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. The team measured, mapped and drew the site prior to excavation. In June, Mather and six URI students joined students from St. Mary’s College in California and the University of California, Berkeley in “URI’s Summer Program in Bermuda,” a maritime history and underwater archaeology field school. Mather would like to see the program offered each year. Mather chose Bermuda because the water is clear and students can dive safely. The island also “has a reef system that hundreds of ships have bashed into.” The two-week intensive program concentrates on the principles and practices of underwater archaeology-i.e. archival research, research design, visual and electronic survey, site identification and assessment, mapping, excavation, photography, conservation, and publication. All of the students selected the scuba diving component. “It was a big treat,” says URI junior Bill Murphy of Jamestown whose love of scuba diving and a course taught by Mather inspired him to sign up for the Bermuda program. “It’s amazing to come across a shipwreck and try to take everything in. I learned so much.” Although underwater archaeology employs the same broad principles as land archaeology, there are numerous obstacles, according to Mather. It’s colder, divers have a finite air supply, and visibility is often limited to just a few feet. It’s also painstakingly slower and more expensive. While archaeologists use squares, grids, and trowels for land excavation, underwater archaeologists excavate sites using small hand held dredges that use water or air and act like vacuum cleaners. Mather’s interest in maritime archaeology began when he was a teen-ager growing up in London and volunteered to help excavate the site of a Roman wharf and dock. “Shipwrecks preserve a record of life at sea,” says the URI history professor, noting that they can tell us what sailors ate, how they lived, if they carried any animals. Rat bones, seeds, games and crafts, utensils, and ammunition offer the clues and evidence. Trade and diplomacy are tied to maritime trade and traffic, according to Mather. Ships were often the main contact between different cultures. The older shipwrecks tell a story of technology since they generally represented the most advanced technology of that day. Treasure hunters often destroy that record by their heavy-handed looting which often destroys the ship in the process. Mather has seen canons get looted which he says is a pity since everything (except gold coins) that comes out of the water has to be conserved or it will crumble or crack. That’s true whether it’s glass, ceramics, wood, rope or leather. Certain conservation processes can take up to 20 years. Before coming to URI two years ago, Mather traveled the country on contract. Underwater archaeologists are needed before a new tunnel or bridge is constructed or when dredging is being considered. They generally electronically survey the area for cultural material. If any is found, construction or development plans are often altered. -xxx- For More Information: Jan Sawyer, 401-874-2116