The Stories of Shipwrecks | An Interview with Dr. Nathan Richards of the Coastal Studies Institute

History is often recorded in books, in the writings of great figures of the past and present and manuscripts in dusty libraries. But it is also told in the artifacts of the people who lived through those times, in the everyday trinkets, machines and constructs that were a part of that time and place.

It is those everyday constructs that archeologists study and for Dr. Nathan Richards, Program Head of Maritime Heritage at the Coastal Studies Institute, the lost hulls and skeletons of ships resting beneath the waters of the world are the constructs that tell the stories of the communities and societies.

Dr. Nathan Richards – photo courtesy of www.coastalstudiesinstitute.org

“That’s the…part of this whole area of archeology I’m interested in,” he said. “I’m more interested in the anthropologically oriented archeology. Which is to say the story is really interesting. It’s a story like a history. I’m interested in the patterns. Everywhere in the world people seem to always behave similarly in similar circumstances.”

Dr. Richards’ story began in Adelaide, a city with a population of 1.2 million in South Australia. He was in an honors program studying philosophy and archeology when his advisor took him on a dive at Garden Island Ship’s Graveyard, a late 19th century to mid 20th century depository for abandoned ships.

“I was a scuba diver, and he took us out the stars aligned and the angels sang and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Richards said.

Ship abandonment, he explained, is actually far more common then a ship sinking.

“The public’s perception of maritime archeology is catastrophic events culminating in those sort of National Geographic images you see underwater,” he said. Abandonment, he went on to say, “… corresponds to greater changes in culture. Whether it’s technological, or economic or social.”

Richards points to the great depression as a time when ship abandonment was common—simply maintaining the ship was more expensive than its value. Noting that there is even a ship’s graveyards in Elizabeth City, the graveyards are more common than people realize.

The tale of how he ended up at CSI, though, didn’t end, of course when he graduated from Flinder’s University in 2002.

As he explains it, he was almost ready to take a position in Hobart, Tasmania, when a teaching position at East Carolina University opened up. His advisors urged him to take the position.

Members of the marine archeology department at ECU were already aware of his work—one of the staff was part of his dissertation advisors, and according to Richards, his dissertation on ship abandonment had been read by others in the department.

“There are very few universities that offer a program in marine archeology, and even fewer, if any, offer the array of courses ECU has to offer,” he said. “We have a very strong graduate program.”

After teaching at the Greenville Campus for a number of years, he became Maritime Heritage Program Head at CSI in 2011.

CSI may be the perfect landing spot for Dr. Richards. As program head, his interaction with the public and students is very broad. The emphasis at CSI for graduate students is a very hands-on experience preparing them for work in either academia, research or museums.

Because the public is often involved in what the students are studying, there is a chance to tell the hidden stories that may exist.

“Invariably we’re asked about the significance. You can talk about the Monitor’s historical significance very easily and it’s archeological significance,” Richards said. “A generic schooner of the 19th century built in Maine that wrecks here is still very significance in many ways. It might be a rare example of its type, or it might be representative of a trade. We know that there are whole histories that have been ignored. Sometimes those histories have not been written down, and archeology is the way to get to those history. It’s kind of the every day every man history.”

Which may be why he found the Pappy’s Lane Wreck so fascinating.

“I’m more interested in the 19th and 20th century. That’s part of my obsession with the Pappy’s Lane thing. Iron and steel wrecks are more interesting to me. Abandoning the vessel at Pappy’s Lane tells you about the Hatteras Community at the time that happened. It’s a microcosm of that time,” he said.