Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks

[Image: Peder Balke, “Seascape” (1848), courtesy of the Athenaeum].

As cities like New York prepare for “permanent flooding,” and as we remember submerged historical landscapes such as Doggerland, lost beneath the waves of a rising North Sea, it’s interesting to read that humanity’s ancient past—not just its looming future—might be fundamentally maritime, rather than landlocked. Or oceanic rather than terrestrial, we might say.

In his recent book The Human Shore, historian John R. Gillis suggests that, due to a variety of factors, including often extreme transportation difficulties presented by inland terrain, traveling by sea was the obvious choice for early human migrants.

People, after all, have been seafaring for at least 130,000 years.

This focus on seas and waterways came with political implications, Gillis writes. Even when European merchant-explorers reached North America, “It would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” In fact, he adds, “for the first century or more, northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.”

At the risk of anachronism, you might say that their power was defined by logistical concerns, rather than by territorial ones: by dynamic, just-in-time access to ports and routes, rather than by the stationary establishment of landed borders and policed frontiers.

[Image: “Ship in a Storm” (ca. 1826), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

Gillis goes much further than this, however, suggesting that—as 130,000 years of seafaring history seems to indicate—humans simply are not a landlocked species.

“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for.

Perhaps speaking only for myself, this is where things get particularly interesting. Gillis points out that humanity’s deep maritime history has been almost entirely written out of our myths and religions.

In his words, “the book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked, but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” That is, the myth of Genesis was written from the point of view of a culture already turning away from the sea, mastering animal domestication, mining, and wheeled transport, and settling down away from the coastline. It was learning to cultivate gardens: “The story of Eden served admirably as the foundational myth for agricultural society,” Gillis writes, but it performs very poorly when seen in the context of humanity’s seagoing past.

Briefly, I have to wonder what might have happened had works of literature—or, more realistically, highly developed oral traditions—from this earlier era been better preserved. Seen this way, The Odyssey would merely be one, comparatively recent example of seafaring mythology, and from only one maritime culture. But what strange, aquatic world of gods and monsters might we still be in thrall of today had these pre-Edenic myths been preserved—as if, before the Bible, there had been some sprawling Lovecraftian world of coral reefs, lost ships, and distant archipelagoes, from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia?

[Image: “Storm at Sea” (ca. 1824), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

This is where this post’s title comes from. “In short,” Gillis concludes, “we require a new narrative, one with, as Steve Mentz suggests, ‘fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks.’”

Fewer gardens, more shipwrecks. We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.

Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.

The Museum At The Bottom Of The Sea

[Image: Photo by Martin Siegel/Society of Maritime Archaeology, via Der Spiegel].

In 2012, German archaeologists began posting interpretive signs underwater, marking shipwrecks and even crashed airplanes at the bottom of the Baltic Sea as if they are in a museum, in order to make it clear to potential vandals, reckless tourists, and amateur collectors that these are culturally important sites, worthy of preservation.

“Alarmed at the looting of historically valuable shipwrecks in the Baltic Sea,” Der Spiegel reported at the time, “German archaeologists have started attaching underwater signs designating them as protected monuments. Hobby divers and trophy hunters are damaging a precious maritime legacy stretching back thousands of years, they warn.”

The sunken ship seen in the above image, for example, is just one of “some 1,500 marine monuments strewn across the seabed along the coast. The area has a wealth of well-preserved shipwrecks, lost cargo planes and even ancient settlements submerged through subsidence and rising water levels.” That these can be described as monuments is very important: they are not mere wreckage, scattered over the seabed, but artifacts on display for those who can reach them.

[Image: Photo by Martin Siegel/Society of Maritime Archaeology, via Der Spiegel].

The effect is strangely evocative, as if an architectural experiment has been going on beneath the waves of the Baltic Sea for the last few years, in which a museum, entirely without walls and seemingly with only very few visitors, has been secretly installed and constructed. It is a distributed, nonlinear museum of European ruins barely visible in the rising sea.

What’s so interesting from an architectural standpoint, however, is how a group of signs such as these can have such a huge narrative and spatial effect, as if you’ve entered some sort of undefined volumetric space without walls, hidden in the water all around you, a kind of invisible cultural institution stocked with objects that only you and your fellow divers, at that exact moment, can even see.

In fact, it makes me curious how the (totally brilliant and BLDGBLOG-supported) idea of creating a new National Park on the moon might work—and, more to the point, what such a park would really look like. Do we just post a few signs on the lunar surface indicating that historically important artifacts are present up ahead, or do we actually construct some sort of “museum” space there that would more adequately sustain an aura of cultural history?

Either way, it’s both hilarious and deeply strange that we could begin to experiment with what such a park might look like using—of all things—shipwrecks at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, and that German archaeologists, randomly posting cheap signs on the seabed, might have anticipated future strategies of historic preservation in otherwise deeply unearthly situations.