Searching for shipwrecks

Underwater archaeologist brings ancient discoveries to life for Classics students.

Sarah Pruitt '95
April 29, 2022
Dr. Bridget Buxton lectures students in the Latin Study.

Visiting scholar Dr. Bridget Buxton presents to students in the Latin Study.

Exeter’s young classicists got a comprehensive how-to last week from underwater archaeologist Dr. Bridget Buxton, who led a series of lunch seminars in the Latin Study of the Academy Building.

Buxton, an associate professor of ancient history and Mediterranean archaeology at the University of Rhode Island, specializes in classical underwater archaeology, and is a leader in the use of robotic technology in underwater research. A native of New Zealand, she has worked on expeditions in the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Black seas, and the South Pacific Ocean, and has discovered dozens of historic shipwrecks. In addition to the four lunch seminars, she also gave a lecture on April 20 in the Elizabeth Phillips Academy Center, in which she shared her experience as lead archaeologist on the most recent expedition to the RMS Titanic.

Titled “Adventures in Underwater Archaeology,” the series in Applied Classics was presented by the Classical Languages Department and made possible by the support of the Behr Fund. Buxton’s visit highlights the department’s mission to combine Exeter students’ in-depth study of Greek and Latin language and literature with exposure to other disciplines related to the Classics field, including history and archaeology.

The things I’m most excited about are the things I haven’t found yet.”
Bridget Buxton, underwater archaeologist

After sharing images and stories from some of her most memorable expeditions throughout the week, Buxton wrapped up the seminar series on Friday by speaking about “Holy Grails and How to Find Them,” described as “a workshop and Q&A on how to design, fund and lead your next Indiana Jones adventure.” The Latin Study was crowded for the event, with more than 20 students filling the Harkness table and spilling over onto surrounding chairs.

“I often get the question: ‘What’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever discovered?’” Buxton said. “It’s a very difficult question to answer because the things I’m most excited about are the things I haven’t found yet.”

Her talk mixed images of different expeditions with practical tips for how to locate potential field sites. The patterns of where ships tend to wreck, she explained, hasn’t shifted much over the centuries: They’re often found near transportation hubs, as well as islands. “Ships love crashing into islands and shores,” Buxton pointed out. “So, a place like Croatia, which has 1,300 islands, is a really good place to look for ancient shipwrecks.”

In terms of research, Buxton said the true “eureka” moments come in the library, while searching through ancient documents and maps of all different forms. “I like to do most of the research, most of the searching, before I ever go out into the field,” she stressed.

Though big expeditions cost between $50,000 to $100,000 per day, Buxton said it’s possible to fund several weeks of fieldwork for that amount in total. “Find projects, do independent studies, apply for every small grant that you can get,” Buxton advised the students. “You want a track record of taking money, spending it, accounting for it, reporting for it, so when the time comes for you to ask for the big bucks, you've got that track record.”

Learning a skill — such as diving, fixing ship engines, 3-D digital photo modeling or using oceanographic tools like sonar — might be the best way to pursue a career hunting down shipwrecks, Buxton added. “You find a way to start doing what you want to do, and eventually people will get to know you as somebody who they want to have on a project,” she said. “It's really the best advice I can give, even now — volunteer, volunteer and volunteer. One day you might even get paid for what you do.”