A hundred years after its sinking, Titanic rests on a muddy plain, torn apart, scattered, slowly
eroding into the eternal darkness of the sea. It is a ghost town, its well-preserved
decks and artifacts a powerful reminder of the ship as it was, the people who
lived and worked on it, and its loss.In the popular imagination, the Titanic tragedy is seen as the end of an era, and the beginning of
a new, more terrible time in which people increasingly paid the price for
technological advancement in an expanding and competitive world.
At the time, Titanic’s
sinking was a different kind of story – a news event that captured headlines in
what was practically “real time.” It was reported “as it happened” – the
intercepted wireless calls for help, and the resultant pause for news as the
rescue ship, Carpathia, steamed to
New York, without revealing how many, or who, had died. The stories that then
emerged – of hubris, pathos, heroism, and tragedy – are powerful and human
stories, that echo our timeless myths.
But when the ship was rediscovered on Sept. 1, 1985, Titanic provided humanity with a
powerful, physical reminder that this was not just a story, not a myth, but
something real and terrible.
It is in that physical connection to the past that Titanic is most powerful. Expeditions to
the sunken hulk have brought back increasingly graphic images as well as
artifacts. Some 400 visitors have gone into the abyss to see this sunken museum
at the bottom of the sea. I understand that compulsion to go, look, and learn.
I understand it as an archaeologist, as a former museum director, and as
someone who works to protect and share the special places in the oceans that we
as society decide to set apart and save as underwater parks and marine
Photo: 20th Century Fox | The 3D version of TITANIC movie is in cinemas in Norway from 13th of April, 2012
After 27 years, we have learned much about Titanic, but there remains much to
In my visits to the wreck, most recently in 2010 as part of a
team conducting the first full mapping of the site, I have been struck, both
scientifically and emotionally, by what I have seen. I am amazed by the sea’s power to not only
claim Titanic, but to also hold it as
a monument, a memorial, and an archaeological site.
The archaeology of Titanic
can, and should be, more than simply understanding what happened – it should be
an exposition to those who were lost that night, especially those whose stories
have hitherto not been heard because they were poor or did not speak English,
or because they were swallowed by the sea – and, seemingly, by history. The
well-preserved remains of Titanic,
and a study of what their intact baggage can tell us, give modern
archaeologists a chance to rectify some of that injustice and give those people
We mapped Titanic
in 2010 to gain a complete understanding of what lies down there, and that
knowledge can now guide thoughtful science. Those maps are also a powerful tool
for protecting the wreck – a detailed inventory of what is down there as one
means of safeguarding against those who, without consent, might take things
away from this undersea museum not to learn or share, but simply to plunder. We
can, with the maps and high-resolution images from 2010, now assess
environmental and human changes to the wreck and make decisions, as a society,
about what we want done with Titanic.
Should future visits be conducted with certain rules, as is the case in marine
sanctuaries or in historic sites, museums, and cemeteries on land? Many people
have said yes, and our maps will help inform the conversations that will follow
now that we have essentially “turned on the lights” to see what has happened to
Titanic since its rediscovery.
Through the vivid and detailed images of Titanic that we obtained in 2010, the
general public has been exposed to a world as it was – a lost “city on the
sea,” the place where the tragedy happened, and the real human stories of that
night. The images have virtually raised the wreck into the 21st
century, reminding us of the ultimate lessons of places like Titanic: In the seeming solitude of the
sea, there are places that are inexorably linked to our history. If we discard
or forget that history, if we forge forward without regard to the lessons of
the past and reminders of our limitations and frailty, we do a disservice to
our ancestors, to ourselves, and to our descendants.
James P. Delgado is
the Director of Maritime Heritage in the Office of National Marine
Sanctuaries of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (US).
He was the chief scientist for the 2010 scientific mapping expedition to