American University of Beirut

Diving into History


​​November 30, ​2022

Lebanon's rich maritime history extends at least to the time of the Phoenicians, known for their mercantile prowess and commercial domination of the Mediterranean for centuries. Traces of the presence of ancient mariners can be found all along the Lebanese coast in the form of shipwrecks and port city ruins; these are the kinds of archaeological of findings and sites that add layers of richness to the human story, which is exactly the purpose of a burgeoning field of study at AUB, maritime archaeology.

“It’s the study of what we call material culture, so using objects to recreate stories, specifically as regards humans’ relationship with water,” says Naseem Raad, program coordinator of the minor in Marine Science and Culture (MSCU) under the Department of History and Archaeology at AUB. “It could be pottery, it could be coins, shipwrecks; the goal is that we are studying these objects, cataloging, doing a number of different chemical and biological tests on them to acquire data.”

The minor instructs students in multiple disciplines, such as archaeology, oceanography, geology, and biology, so that they might take a multifaceted view of a historical maritime site; indeed painting an accurate historical picture often involves triangulating several kinds of data. “We're looking at currents, we're looking at ship technology, we're looking at trade routes, geology, geophysics,” Raad explains.

Some of the minor’s courses are based in the classroom, such as History of Maritime Economies, which studies the maritime economies of the Mediterranean region from the Neolithic to the Roman Period. Others are more practical in nature, including the field school that has students performing coastal surveys, geophysics work, and dives; diving is a key skill for budding maritime archaeologists to master.

And how did AUB come to host a minor in maritime archaeology? Thanks to the generosity of the Honor Frost Foundation (HFF), a London-based NGO with offices in Lebanon, named after famed maritime archaeologist Honor Frost, who largely pioneered the field in Lebanon through a series of expeditionary dives stretching from the 1950s to the 2000s. The MSCU program was initially developed by Lucy Semaan, the head of the HFF Lebanon team, and Lucy Blue, the maritime archaeological director of the HFF.

HFF sponsors maritime archaeological and geomorphological projects, as well as offshore geophysical surveys, all of which are conducted by the HFF Lebanon Team, led by Dr. Lucy Semaan. These surveys are commissioned by the Lebanese government’s Directorate General of Antiquities in advance of a proposed shoreline development project, like a seaside villa or apartment complex.

“Now the Lebanese government at the moment does not have the capacity to do maritime archeological work. And as you well know, we're under the worst economic crisis of the modern world,” Raad says. And so the HFF does its survey work as a kind of charity, developing its expertise and portfolio of survey work along the way. At the close of each survey, the HFF makes recommendations for preservation, if a site is found to be historically significant.

For ancient sites, there exist a slew of international conventions providing protection. But UNESCO defines historical as being a century or older. “There are many shipwrecks less than 100 years old, ‘modern shipwrecks,’ that Lucy and the team are mapping and putting in a database. For the first time in Lebanon, the team is using underwater photogrammetry to create digitized 3D models of these sites for the purposes of monitoring and preservation.”

Ultimately, Raad and the HFF hope to develop a cadre of skilled maritime archaeologist, their expertise honed in Lebanon, who might be deployed abroad, around the Mediterranean rim, if not farther. “Geophysics work can be very expensive and sophisticated, when it’s required. If we can build that skill here in Lebanon and carry it out elsewhere, there’s real value in that.”​

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