10 January 2007

Throckmorton down under the Aegean

It was the spring of 1958. Peter Throckmorton (1928-1990), an American photographer, diver, freelance journalist and above all, adventurer, was returning to Europe from a filming assignment in India. While in Istanbul, he heard that a bronze bust of Demeter had been found by fishermen off the southwestern coast of Turkey. He decided to investigate.

The rest is history. And that history is told in Throckmorton's 1965 book, The Lost Ships, which I recently finished reading.

A shipwreck enthusiast since childhood, Throckmorton wanted to find out where the bust of Demeter had come from. So he went south, first, to Izmir on the west coast, where he became friends with the Turkish photographer, diver Mustafa Kapkin. With Kapkin as his guide and translator, he then proceeded to Bodrum, which was then the hub of Turkish sponge divers. There, the two of them befriended divers, spent with them long nites eating, smoking lots of cigarettes and getting drunk in rickety restaurants. They also learned the locations of the ancient wrecks the divers had been spotting for years along the bottom of the Aegean.

During the days, they did foolishly dangerous dives using homemade scuba gear. They survived and eventually managed to obtain better equipment and assemble a team of divers and started exploring the wrecks in the company of sponge divers along the Aegean coasts of Turkey1.

One of the amusing parts in the book is Throckmorton's unsuccessful attempt to get away from Turkey's peculiar pseudo-homosexual, female-shy male culture that he disliked (and I can't blame him).

I set out for [the Greek island of] Kos, looking forward to a room by myself, a shower, a meal all alone in a shady cafe, perhaps even reading a magazine. The greatest luxury of all was the idea of seeing women. The strange life I had been leading in Bodrum started me thinking about the whole question of the Turks' attitude toward women and, in a way, my own. At the moment women were more important symbolically than as actual sexual objects. I was not interested in women physically when I was diving, for like most divers, I was always tired. What bothered me in Bodrum was the absence of the idea of women as possible companions. I was not demoralized so much by the absence of women as by the suspicion that nubile women didn't really exist at all. I wanted to sit and watch the pretty girls of Kos walk by, not necessarily even speaking to them, but simply renewing my imagination with the assurance that pretty girls actually existed in the world, wearing nice clothes so that men would look at them.

We chugged into the harbor on the rotten old wreck that served as the twice weekly ferryboat, and I was struck by the beauty of the little ships in Kos harbor. The caïques of Kos, like the women, were well painted and kept with pride, unlike the shabby ships of Bodrum. But there was no hotel space in Kos and I had to accept the captain's invitation to sleep on the dirty caïque with the rest of the men from Bodrum. I was stuck with friends from Bodrum during breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Later, he relocated a bronze age wreck off Cape Gelidonya in southern Turkey that had been first spotted by a sponge diver. After returning to the U.S., Throckmorton was able to convince a young archaeology student, George Bass, that the Cape Gelidonya wreck was worth excavating. The 2 of them returned with a motley team of Americans, Turks and Europeans and excavated the wreck over the summer of 1960. Cape Gelidonya was where scientific underwater archaeology more or less originated. The Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University has information and photographs of the Gelidonya excavation.

Throckmorton was a good writer2 and this was a fun book to read except for one sentence where he seems to have lost his common sense to include a hearsay claim about something outrageous that Turkish villagers on the Bodrum Peninsula were said to have committed against the remains of some Greek soldiers during World War II. The story is so nonsensical that I am not going to repeat it here (it's on p. 134 of the book). The moment I read it I wrote it off as untrue, but only after I read Throckmorton's "disclaimer" about it at the end of the book did I find my instinct confirmed: Throckmorton had heard it from a Greek captain who, however, could not have witnessed the purported event personally, because at that point he would have already left Turkey. In other words, it was obviously a rumor told by one Turk-hating Greek to another, probably many times, before it reached Throckmorton. The perpetuation of an incriminating, yet unconfirmed and ugly story was Throckmorton's inexplicable stab in the backs of his sponge diver friends in Bodrum.


Throckmorton at his typewriter in Bodrum with cheap Turkish cigarettes and Turkish tea.

The artifacts Throckmorton and Kapkin found during their dives formed the nucleus of the collections of the museum they started in the Castle of the Knights in Bodrum in the late 1950s. Back then, Throckmorton wrote, the castle was being used as a stable for donkeys. It now houses the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. The museum's website has a short tribute to the contributions of Throckmorton, Kapkin and Honor Frost, the British archaeological illustrator who worked with them in Bodrum.

As for the wreck from where the Demeter bust may have come from, its whereabouts is still a mystery as this 2004 report by Australian archeologists shows.


1In my review of Lord Kinross's Europa Minor, I mentioned that a sponge diver in Bodrum had told Kinross about the wreckages of some British aircraft shot down during World War II. Throckmorton dived to one of those planes, but could not recover anything identifiable.
2However, Throckmorton misspelled almost every Turkish word he included in his book, including the name of the sponge boat on which he spent many days, Mandalinci (pronounced, Mandalindji). Throckmorton's, Mandalinche, even if it was an attempt at phonetic spelling, should have been avoided for accuracy (the correctly spelled name of the boat was, of course, written on its bow and is clearly visible in one of the photographs in the book).

1 comment:

Duane said...

Nice post. I once heard Throckmorton speak. He also gives a very exciting lecture. If I remember correctly, he paid sponge divers to find bronze (copper?) ingots. He knew if he could find the distinctively shaped ingots that, he would also find the wreck of the ship that carried them.