Local student pursues interest in underwater archaeology


Although he loves to watch the Indiana Jones movies, Caleb O’Brien plans on being a much better archaeologist than the bumbling but charismatic titular character.

Just last month, the 2016 graduate of Seymour High School completed his second archaeological excavation.

His first adventure last year took him to Italy, where he worked on the site of a Roman villa. Although he loved the experience, it doesn’t compare to what was to come.

This summer, O’Brien, a senior at DePauw University in Greencastle, wanted to try something a little different.

[sc:text-divider text-divider-title=”Story continues below gallery” ]Click here to purchase photos from this gallery

With his interest in the field, past experience on the Seymour High School swim team and certification in scuba diving, O’Brien decided to try his hand at underwater archaeology.

Looking for opportunities, he talked to people at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, where they have an archaeology lab.

"It seemed interesting to me," he said.

Online research led him to the Institute for Field Research, the only underwater archaeology field school available to undergraduates.

"I applied and somehow got in," he said. "I really don’t know how."

He was one of eight people chosen to participate in an ongoing research project discovering the submerged heritage of ancient Mesambria in present-day Nessebar on the Black Sea coast. Significant parts of the ancient town are now below sea level.

On May 22, O’Brien left the comforts of home to spend a month in Bulgaria, an eastern European country just north of Greece.

"I don’t think many Americans go there," he said.

His trip was paid for through scholarships from DePauw and the Sertoma Club of Jackson County.

Before actually getting to do the underwater work themselves, O’Brien and the other students were schooled on basic excavation techniques.

Instead of using small hammers, chisels and brushes to remove layers of soil, he had to use what was basically a vacuum cleaner to suck up sediment.

"They were significantly different from what I was used to, but I wasn’t surprised," he said. "After we got acclimated to what we were doing, we started doing surveys."

He also learned how to create three-dimensional imaging using underwater photography.

Using a GoPro, he would take hundreds of images of the bricks and blocks they had uncovered. Later, he would upload those images to a computer program to create the 3D models.

"I had never done that before," he said. "It’s a new technology for the field."

The team worked to map the remains of fortification walls around the former city. Some of the sections of the wall date back 5,000 years, O’Brien said.

One of the sites they worked on was a 24-by-24-foot tower that a previous class had excavated.

Another section of the wall was covered in sediment from modern-day dredging and the creation of the nearby harbor, so they had to remove the silt to uncover it.

Besides seaweed and silt, the students also had to watch for jellyfish and remove mussels that had buried into the stones of the ancient walls.

All of the sites were about 10 feet underwater.

Thanks to being able to control his breathing through his years as a swimmer, O’Brien was able to stay underwater for two hours at a time, whereas others could only stay for an hour, he said.

Archaeology was not O’Brien’s first career choice, as he planned to go to law school. But his love of ancient history led him to enroll in DePauw’s classics program.

"It’s dominated by archaeologists," he said. "We have three archaeologists on staff, which is more than IU has on their staff, so they kind of pushed me into doing archaeology because that’s the only classes we have."

But he found out he really liked it and was good at it thanks to random classes he took in high school, such as agriculture.

"It taught me things about different types of soils and how they change, which is good to know in archaeology," he said.

The experience was so unique and fascinating that O’Brien plans to apply for a graduate program for underwater archaeology in Southampton, England.

He then plans to come back to the United States to work for a private cultural resource management firm, which funds archaeological digs.

"The United States government does not fund archaeology like other countries do," he said. "We’re the only developed country in the world that doesn’t have a department or ministry of culture."

After that, he may go back to get his Ph.D. in archaeology and become Dr. Caleb O’Brien so he can be a professor of underwater archaeology.

Besides finding ancient artifacts and uncovering evidence of early civilizations, O’Brien wants to make the field of archaeology more relevant to the masses.

"That’s something I’m really into, seeing how we can make the public more aware of it," he said.

He plans on doing this by helping create virtual reality experiences for museums so people have opportunities to not just see artifacts and pictures but to immerse themselves in the sites.

"It will render in three dimensions so you can walk around the site that’s underwater," he said. "Otherwise, 1% of the population can see it." 

If underwater sites are not explored now, then one day, they won’t be there because they will decay and disappear due to their environment, O’Brien said.

In the future, O’Brien hopes to be able to do an underwater shipwreck excavation.

"I would love to do shipwrecks," he said. "That’s like a big thing to me because they’re not going to be there in 200 years. You have to get there now to get any sort of evidence from that."

Although he wore an Indiana Jones ball cap every day while on his dig in Italy, O’Brien plans to do a better job than the whip-snapping hero.

"From an archaeology standpoint, he’s a terrible archaeologist because he’s just stealing stuff," O’Brien said. "He’s not recording anything. He just takes the treasure and doesn’t care about anything else."

Believe it or not, Indiana Jones is not what got O’Brien interested in archaeology in the first place.

"The thing that got me into this was the movie ‘Titanic,’ actually," he said.

O’Brien was fascinated by the archaeological excavation of the ship and was inspired by the work of Robert Ballard, who found the Titanic in 1985.

Archaeology is important because it allows us to know our history, he said. And when that history is buried underwater, you have to have a way to explore and retrieve it.

"You get a glimpse of what people lived like in a specific moment in time," he said. "You can develop a much more unique connection to people. History unifies people. Without knowing the history, you don’t have unity in your country, which is a very sad thing."

No posts to display