Written By: Amy Dunkle
For: The University of Rhode Island | Momentum: Research & Innovation | Fall 2018
URI Associate Professor Bridget Buxton, ancient history and archaeology, followed a different path of discovery, collaborating with ocean engineering Associate Professor Stephen Licht and his students to utilize a jet ski for underwater dredging.
The need for such a contraption grew from Buxton’s frustration over how to uncover a 2,000-year-old harbor built by the Biblical King Herod the Great. A trained classical archaeologist who can read Latin and Greek texts, Buxton believed Josephus, a first century writer, did not make a mathematical mistake when he described Herod’s harbor as being 20 fathoms deep, but rather there was a mistake of translation from Roman to Greek measurements.
If her theory was correct, Buxton explains, then the lost foundations of Herod’s harbor were six fathoms below sea level, and many times bigger than previously suspected. But reaching the original foundations through almost 20 feet of sand posed an enormous task.
“At the end of the summer of 2017, I realized that if we were going to try to dig a trench that deep, we were going to be here 100 years,” she says. “I thought, if only we had jet skis … we could keep working in rough weather and launch off the beach.”
Buxton drew up what she envisioned, raised the funding needed from private donors, and turned to Licht for help. Licht, in turn, created a capstone course for his students, they produced a prototype, the “Digski.”
“The Digski is designed to be a rugged, low-cost replacement for a coastal archaeological research vessel: running sidescan, multibeam, and subbottom acoustic surveys, ferrying gear and scuba divers to and from underwater sites,” explains Buxton. “It serves as a surface hub for DGPS localization, diver tracking, and communications. Its primary excavation function is to power an underwater dredge system directly from the jetski engine, eliminating the need for a large boat to carry a conventional high-pressure pump.”
Especially useful in a place with a dynamic surf zone and few natural harbors, the Digski can be launched manually from just about anywhere, and handle much rougher sea conditions than a dive boat.
In May, the prototype went to work in King Herod’s harbor and Buxton presented the results of the excavation at an international conference in October 2018.
“One of the biggest obstacles to marine research is the cost and logistics of operating a research vessel,” Buxton observes. “By adapting the Digski as a viable low-cost replacement for coastal survey and excavation, and making everything open-source, we are helping to democratize ocean science.
“Michael Katz got it immediately, and I am so grateful to Professor Licht and his very talented capstone class.”
Buxton hopes to raise further private funding to develop the Digski prototypes and use them for marine archaeology in both Rhode Island and Israel, but emphasizes that profit is not the motive: “At a public university, sometimes it’s not how much we are bringing in, but how much we contribute to society.”
Katz says both URI and its nonprofit research foundation, URI Ventures, are enormously proud of the discoveries and ventures launched by faculty and students who imagine big ideas and partner with companies to bring them to market.
“A key mission of URI is to translate discoveries from laboratories, workshops, studios, stages, libraries, research vessels, and offices into the services, products, and policies that benefit our society and the world.”
by Joel Perry
During the summer of 2021, an expeditionary team will conduct a series of submersible dives to explore and document the condition of RMS Titanic and portions of the nearly unexplored debris field. Aboard each of the 18 scheduled dives will be a scientist or content expert who will gather archaeological and biological data. The goals of the expedition include:
Our sponsored science team will join OceanGate Expedition’s Titanic Survey Expedition on each of the six missions and will utilize advanced and time-tested techniques to gather data for future analysis. An array of 4K cameras, 2D and 3D sonar scanners, direct observation and grid mapping are just some of the techniques and equipment that the team will utilize during each of the dives that are expected to last up to 10 hours.
The data and images from the expedition will be freely shared with the other researchers following the expedition to help expand our understanding of the ocean.
Following the tragic sinking in 1912, the wreck and artifacts have been subject to a harsh environment of corrosive saltwater, extreme pressure and biological attacks. These factors are combining to disintegrate the wreck at some unknown rate. The science team will compare the current condition to images and data from previous expeditions to better predict the rate of decay.
All OceanGate Foundation underwater exploration is conducted in accordance with the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.
Expedition Science Coordinator
“My primary goal for the 2021 Titanic Expedition is to make sure we maximize our time and technology to get the most comprehensive picture of the wreck site ever created, and to make as much as possible freely available online as soon as practical after the expedition. Beyond that, I have a wish-list of specific questions to explore – the dozens of little controversies that occupy so many Titanic books and interest groups. Insofar as we’ll have an opportunity to tell a new story about Titanic through this expedition, I would like the focus to be on the experience of the lesser-known victims of the disaster, in perhaps the less glamorous parts of the ship. This will be a chance to dismantle a lot of the cultural myths of the Titanic disaster that were used, both then and now, to define Anglo-American ideals of heroism, gender, and class.”
Using HD video, document (identify, count) the fauna of the wreck and surrounding areas, including the water column. When possible, obtain close-up detailed video of fauna for later analysis.
In particular, I will:
“My goals for the expedition is for the imagery and other data we produce to serve a larger archaeological purpose — we increasingly have the ability to find and study shipwrecks at tremendous depths, and but we are still developing the theoretical frameworks through which to view and study these wrecks as a discipline. I want this expedition to explore Titanic from a more clinical point of view — think about how we are contributing to the discipline more widely through doing this work, rather than simply getting better pictures of the already most heavily documented deep-sea shipwreck. I would like to further Bridget’s point about using this time to highlight the experiences of lesser-known passengers on board, to shed light on experiences of the people we don’t hear about, or whose stories were manipulated at the time and since to fit a specific narrative about customs of the sea, manliness and heroism.”
OceanGate Foundation is looking for passionate people to support our work.