By: Dave Moran
Best selling novelist and highly respected marine archeologist David Gibbins recently visited New Zealand to promote his two books:
David draws on his own diving adventures and his archeological knowledge to weave an intricate tapestry of historical facts blended with thrilling fiction!
It was pleasure to meet a man who was so down to earth but who is regarded as an outstanding writer.
As the UK’s Mirror News paper review put it: What do you get if you cross Indiana Jones with Dan Bro
Dave Moran (DM): David I understand you spent sometime in New Zealand when you were a young lad. Also when did your fascination with diving and wrecks begin?
David Gibbins (DG): I was born in Canada and my parents moved to Nelson in 1963 when I was one. My dad was a research scientist at the Cawthron Institute. We left for England when I was five. I have strong memories of living by the sea in Nelson. It probably influenced my fascination with the sea and diving. My grandfather was also a big influence; he was a merchant navy captain for the Cunard Line, one of the last big East Indies shipping lines. His seafaring stories of war and trade in the East Indies really spurred my imagination.
I’ve been fascinated by diving for as long as I can remember. There’s a picture of me with my mum’s washing gloves on my feet and a made-up mask, I was four at the time.
At 15 my first dives were in the Great Lakes, Canada.
Many of those early dives with basic gear were ice dives. I really got pitched in at the deep end!
I developed a huge fascination with archaeology and ancient history. By the time I was 15/16 I was determined to be an underwater archaeologist or professional wreck diver. At 17 I attended the one place that did maritime archaeology, the University of Bristol, England. At 18 I had my first expedition to the Mediterranean, my first Roman shipwreck.
I became involved with a programme that had been going since the 1960s looking at shipwrecks off south east Sicily. We excavated about six Roman wrecks and six Greek wrecks. I also did a series of three seasons excavating a Roman wreck (about the 8200 period) near the great port of Syracuse.
Amongst the amphoras and scattered pottery etc we found a Roman surgeon’s instrument kit which was fantastic. People often ask me if I’ve found treasure underwater. I have found gold â but in some ways it’s not necessarily intrinsically precious items but things like that travelling doctor surgeon’s kit which has three exquisite bronze scalpel handles. When you find things like that, and you know the owner probably died on the scene 2000 years ago, it’s pretty amazing.
I did my PhD on Roman trade. Part of this research gave me a real insight into that first generation of divers in the 40s and 50s when diving first took off and before proper excavation began. It was fascinating how deep they dived and the objects they found.
I dived with one of Cousteau’s contemporaries who did all the things that legend said they did, such as having a big swig of wine before a dive, to dilate their blood vessels. It worked, very few got bent!
On gaining my PhD, I started teaching archaeology for the next 12 years until my late 30s. At the latter end of my teaching I was involved with a high classical period Greek wreck from about the 5th Century BC. It was a really big scale operation with an American team from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Texas. I personally made some of my best discoveries there. I was airlifting a sandbank on one side of the 2,500 year old wreck and uncovered a line of exquisitely beautiful Greek painted cups. We also dived Bronze Age wrecks. It’s pretty amazing to have worked on wrecks covering a time period over 3,500 – 4,000 years, back to early pre-history.
One of my dreams is to visit the Canadian Arctic again, to investigate the possibility of Viking shipwrecks. As the ice recedes further due to global warming new possibilities are presenting themselves!
DM: You were obviously a very successful lecturer, what triggered you to write novels?
DG: I love teaching and lecturing but it restricted my time to do field work, research and writing. I was feeling frustrated and constrained.
I realized the only way was to jump ship! I thought I could do archaeological fiction thrillers which would allow my imagination no bounds. In a sense I was returning to my boyhood fantasies. Plus my 20 odd years as a practising archaeologist would provide plausibility based on my own experience and knowledge. A big gamble! I found a publisher for my first novel,
plus a contract for my second novel,
. The success of the books now allowed me to consider self funding big field projects. So as long as I write best selling novels the dream will become reality.
DM: How do you decide on which shipwreck or archaeological site to search for or commence an archeology dig?
DG: I’m interested in very ancient wrecks especially those involved in Roman trade. There are key periods in ancient seafaring that we don’t know much about. Any Bronze Age wreck is a goldmine archaeologically. With Roman wrecks, hundreds are known, therefore you’re thinking, what particular value will another investigation be? But if the wreck is from a particular time that we don’t know much about or its cargo material is unusual I’m very interested. Example, Roman and Greek seaborne traded 100s of tons of marble which can be seen by the great marble monuments around the Mediterranean.
The further we go back in time the more interesting the wrecks become. My dream is an early Bronze Age wreck full of Egyptian goods – fantastic!
DM: During your shipwreck hunting expeditions, do you have at the back of your mind, this would be a good angle or idea for my next novel?
DG: Absolutely! When I started writing
I wanted my characters to find a golden disk which contained the key to decoding the location of Atlantis and it had to be on a Bronze Age wreck. My imagery comes from a Bronze Age wreck I dived off Turkey in the early 1980s. The Museum of Underwater Archaeology at Bodrum contains what was found. It’s like walking into King Tut’s tomb as the shipwreck dates from about that time, the end of the second millennium BC, a fabulous collection of gold, ivory, pottery â etc.
My third novel to be published next year â is
The Last Gospel
â it focuses a little on evidence from early Christianity. One of the key episodes is based on the New Testament’s writings about St Paul’s shipwreck which is traditionally thought to be off the Island of Malta. So what I have written is based on that wreck which produced the surgeon’s kit. I think it’s crucial to have that extra edge of credibility.
DM: Do you personally think Atlantis and the Menorah (a large seven arm candlestick) which is in your book Crusader Gold really exist?
DG: The novels are fiction. But there is a possibility some things exist. If I didn’t believe that I probably wouldn’t write the novels. My main character Jack Howard approaches mysteries the way I would, therefore they have plausibility.
hinges on evidence from the Greek philosopher Plato who writes one account about Atlantis. You either believe it or not. If you do believe it, the possibilities are endless. I do believe that he was probably telling the truth because there’s too much in the story of the Greek getting the account from an Egyptian priest that seems plausible. Some archaeologists who buy into the story believe it relates to the Bronze Age in the Aegean Sea and the eruption of Thera Island which erupted in the middle of the second millennium BC destroying the known civilization. My theory goes further back about 3,000 – 4,000 years to the very early period of civilization â not in the Aegean but in the Black Sea which seems to have had a much lower sea level through to about 5,500 BC before water from the Mediterranean flooded it. In my theory there was a prosperous civilization that developed along the coastal plain that is now northern Turkey. Very brief investigations down to about 1500 metres have found evidence of farming and possibly structures. More studies may uncover some really momentous discoveries! Who knows they might find something similar to the Atlantis in my book!
The Atlantis story â I think it’s very plausible. The Menorah story is essentially fact. The Menorah did exist. When you visit the Roman Forum and look at the Arch of Titus which is a monumental stone arch built by the Emperor Titus in the first century there it is â the procession on the cover of my book showing Roman soldiers carrying the Menorah. People have speculated for hundreds of years as to what happened to it. I had a huge amount of fun writing
. Coming up with the story which involves the Vikings getting to Greenland and into the Americas. Part of the story is plausible but also speculation as there is no record. We know that at the end of the Roman period a lot of art and other treasure was taken from Rome to Constantinople (now Istanbul) because that’s where the Roman capital relocated. If it did go there it could have remained hidden away in a treasury. That’s where my fiction takes over. My story hinges on an extraordinary episode in history when the Vikings make their way to Constantinople and became the Emperor’s bodyguards. That’s where the adventure takes off.
DM: Could it be in the Vatican?
DG: Personally I doubt it, but plenty do.
DM: If it was there what would be the reason for not saying it’s there?
DG: I think if it was revealed now it would cast such a pall on Catholic â Jewish relations that it wouldn’t be worth revealing. Had they revealed it centuries ago it might have been absorbed into history. If it was revealed now that the Catholic Church had concealed this great Jewish treasure I think all hell would break loose! A couple of years ago there was a delegation of Israeli academics to the Vatican asking the question.
DM: The Menorah is hugely significant?
DG: Yes, that’s why in my story I play with secret societies and the Nazis. The Nazis search for Atlantis and the Menorah. For them the Jewish treasure would have been a colossal discovery.
DM: Have you had the big screen knocking on your door?
DG: We had a lot of interest, including Hollywood in
. We decided on a company that specialized in making television mini-series. With computer generated imagery, scenes that used to be excessively expensive are now possible for smaller companies to create relatively cheaply. Can you imagine the cost of a film set to create
? So for films being made about stories such as mine, which in the past would have been a huge big deal, are now being undertaken by small production companies. Production starts in 2008.
DM: What are your thoughts about the protection of historical shipwrecks as proposed by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization â UNESCO?
DG: In principle such a concept is commendable. There should be an international moratorium to set guidelines for what constitutes an archaeological or historical site and what procedures/guidelines are and protection required. All this comes to nothing if there’s neither financing nor policing. I think these are the two keys. 95% of the world’s waters are international waters, how can we conceivably have legal control over what goes on in these waters? I think the focus needs to be more on individual countries and their individual needs and having budgets that are sensible. In places like New Zealand and Australia, divers should sit down with archaeologists and Government heritage people and discuss possibilities for each particular site. Resolve issues at a local level. Global legislations sounds fine in principle but the practical application is often difficult.
DM: Do we draw a line in time as far as what an historic wreck is?
DG: I think it’s entirely dependent on the site itself. There are sites that are very recent, less than 100 years old which are largely unknown which might be of historical significance and worthy of investigation. But the majority of wrecks within the last 100 years have enough documentation for their archaeological investigations to be redundant. It’s difficult, because there are some 17th Century shipwrecks which have extraordinarily detailed manifestos, shipwright plans and even models. I think what you have to assess is whether or not there is special value to the artifacts, because they’re very old, uncommon or unusual thus making the wreck archaeologically interesting.
DM: Your thoughts on how professional marine archaeologists can work with amateur shipwreck enthusiasts?
DG: It’s a tough question. There’s a great model developing in the UK. People with metal detectors are beginning to work more closely with archaeologists. There is a BBC TV series where a group of archaeologists investigate sites both above and below the water. They’ve shown how the amateurs can be pivotal in discovering sites. What’s needed is for the mutual antipathy which is always aggressive between archaeologists and divers or treasure hunters to be eroded, it’s beginning to happen. I have worked on archaeological projects which have included all manner of divers, not just archaeologists or archaeology students but divers from all manners of backgrounds and interests, a team effort. That’s the way ahead.
DM: Do you get excited about the technology that’s available today?
DG: It’s phenomenal how things have developed. Wreck archaeology in the Mediterranean is less susceptible to the use of remote sensing to find wrecks because you’re often dealing with badly smashed up sites that might be along a cliff base or similar. Very few of them have significant concentrations of metal for magnetometers to be effective. Sonar surveys also aren’t often very effective. Submersibles (ROVs) can find sites but if at a diveable depth nothing beats going in and looking for them. I think one day a lot of archaeology diving will be done remotely.
DM: Have you any future pet projects?
DG: I would love to find an early Bronze Age wreck from about 2,000 – 2,500 BC in the Mediterranean or a Phoenician wreck in the English Channel. The Phoenicians made their way to Britain to trade for tea around 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. Another would be a Viking shipwreck in the Canadian Arctic â beautifully preserved â a Hollywood shipwreck.
Finally â a Roman shipwreck in the South China Sea! It is possible because the Romans had a trading post on the south coast of India. What they were taking out from Rome were cargoes of gold coins, and in return they were bringing back spices and pepper and other goods. Very much like the East Indian trade of more recent times. Maybe one day someone will find a Roman wreck full of gold out here!