Archaeology is always transgressive. In seeking to understand some episode of the past, it changes the evidence left by that episode irretrievably. Surrounding layers may be judged irrelevant and be scattered on the trash heap; artifacts are plucked out of significant spots that may be recorded but then destroyed. But maritime archaeology—the identification, excavation, and in some cases raising of seabed wrecks—can be less of a transgression in that sense. Sealed off by mud and silt or boxed in by saturated old timbers, something like a “time capsule” may await the researcher. It’s an image used repeatedly by James P. Delgado in War at Sea. The marine archaeologist uses the condition of the wreck as well as the debris preserved—weapons, navigation aids, scraps of textile, human bones—to gain a clearer idea of what really happened at what onshore archaeologists call the moment of deposition. And often enough, this evidence can be used to rewrite history.

In March 1915 the German cruiser Dresden steamed into the harbor of Robinson Crusoe Island, in the Juan Fernández archipelago, and cast anchor. The islands, lying in the Pacific some four hundred miles west of the South American mainland, belong to Chile, which was neutral in the world war that had broken out in Europe.

The Dresden had taken part in two reverberating naval battles. It was on the winning side at Coronel, off the Chilean coast, in November 1914, when Admiral Maximilian von Spee and the German Pacific squadron sank two British cruisers, and on the losing side a month later when a vengeful British fleet caught up with Spee at the Battle of the Falklands and sent him and most of his ships to the bottom of the sea. The Dresden had escaped and was being hunted by the Royal Navy. It was running out of fuel and sending desperate radio appeals for coal when its captain, Fritz von Lüdecke, decided to seek sanctuary in a neutral port, even at the risk of being interned. But the radio signals were picked up by the British. At 8:40 on the morning of March 14, a Royal Navy squadron entered the harbor and opened fire on the ship.

Von Lüdecke tried to negotiate. He sent over to HMS Glasgow a young lieutenant, Wilhelm Canaris. (Years later Admiral Canaris would become head of the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence, and finally a leading conspirator against Adolf Hitler, who hanged him in 1945.) Canaris met a British naval officer who merely said that “his orders were to sink Dresden, and leave the rest to the diplomats.” The British squadron resumed fire at point-blank range. Von Lüdecke ordered the crew to abandon ship, and at 10:45 a scuttling charge exploded in the Dresden’s bow. Another went off in the engine room as it sank. From the shore, the surviving German seamen cheered.

What exactly had happened, however, became a matter of ugly dispute. The British version was that the cruiser “put up a half-hearted fight” for five minutes or so and then ran up a white flag of surrender before being sunk by its crew. But London’s initial accusations that the Dresden was plotting to violate Chilean neutrality by using the island as a base for attacking British shipping soon went rather quiet; on reflection, bursting into the harbor and firing without asking Chile’s permission didn’t show much respect for neutrality either. The British apologized to the Chilean government but said that the action had taken place twelve miles out to sea, not in port. The Times of London professed to believe this. The New York Times, by contrast, reported that the Dresden had been anchored close offshore all through the engagement, with British shells hitting other ships in the anchorage and killing a civilian woman and child. A later, equally unconvincing British version of what happened claimed that the three Royal Navy warships had never entered the harbor but had bombarded the anchorage from the open sea.

Nearly a century later, in 2002, a Canadian-Chilean team went out to Juan Fernández to research the wreck of the Dresden. With them traveled Delgado. It’s fair to say that—along with Robert Ballard, the discoverer of the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck—Delgado is one of the most experienced and best-known underwater archaeologists in the world. About the Dresden he writes:

What we found, at 70 meters, was that the German accounts seemed right. Indeed, while the victors write the history, in this case they did so to gloss over their violation of the law, and unfairly maligned their opponents.

Examination of the wreckage on the seafloor showed clearly that the Dresden had been riddled with shells fired at extremely close range; its attackers had even sailed slowly around the cruiser—already abandoned by its crew—firing into it as it burned.


There was one final discovery. Delgado and his comrades found that part of the stern had been blown off, which no one had recorded at the time. It emerged that a few months before the sinking, Admiral von Spee had gone to the old German treaty port of Tsingtao, in China, and removed a large stock of gold coins held in the banks there. The gold had then been transferred to the Dresden and stored in the captain’s quarters in the stern, with the intention of bringing it back to Germany. Years passed, the war ended, and in Germany Hitler came to power. The new regime made contact with the enthusiastic Nazi element in Chile’s German community, and at some point in the 1930s a discreet Chilean-German team dived down to the Dresden wreck and blew open the captain’s quarters. There the trail apparently breaks off, but it leads plainly toward the Reichsbank in Berlin.

The tale of the Dresden is typical of the remarkable, often horrifying stories that make up War at Sea. In spite of the ambitious title, it is not exactly an academic or popular history of naval warfare. Instead it is a selective chronicle of warship wrecks in the world’s oceans (many explored by Delgado himself) and their archaeology, using each example to describe developments in ship construction, propulsion, and armament. As the book’s narrative nears the present, it also becomes a study of how underwater exploration technology has evolved, from naked divers to remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and manned submersibles operating under the fearsome pressure of depths that would implode a normal submarine.

With each wreck he discusses, Delgado includes a careful summary of the historical background. For example, his account of the wreckage of the Swan, a small Cromwellian pinnace lost in 1653 off Duart Point on Scotland’s Isle of Mull, comes with a helpful section on the three-kingdom wars of the time between England, Scotland, and Ireland and the use of naval forces (not very successful) in them. Then come the circumstances of the loss—in the Swan’s case, a vicious storm following an assault landing—and then, with Delgado at his best in his own field of maritime archaeology, a description of what researchers found and what they learned from it. In the captain’s cabin there was “an elaborate door, more suited to an elegant drawing room than to the interior of a small warship,” the “binnacle” still containing the ship’s compass, and the remains of one or several skeletons. “Two masses of rusted concretion, when X-rayed, revealed an ‘almost intact pocket-watch’…and a steel rapier with an ornate handle…an elaborate creation of tightly wound silver and gold wire.”

Typical too, both in its detail and its compassion, is Delgado’s account of raising the H.L. Hunley, the tiny Confederate vessel—more like a small iron tube imprisoning a crew of eight—that was the first submarine to sink a warship. In 1864 the Hunley attached an explosive charge (termed a “torpedo” at the time) to the Union warship Housatonic off Charleston. Backing off after the explosion, the submarine settled on the bottom of the harbor, where its crew were probably overcome by a buildup of carbon dioxide and died at their posts. They were all found, in “a truly unique time capsule,” when the Hunley was dug out of the silt and raised in a series of operations between 1996 and 2000. In 1862, the Hunley’s commander, Lieutenant George Dixon, had fought at Shiloh, where a $20 gold piece given to him as a keepsake by a girlfriend stopped a bullet. The archaeologist Maria Jacobsen found the coin, with its bullet dent, lying where the pocket of his trousers would have been. Before they were buried in Charleston’s best cemetery, facial reconstructions were made of “these eight brave men who risked and lost their lives to carry out the first successful submarine attack and sinking in history.”

There used to be a happy theory that war, like class conflict, was not always a human habit but originated only with metallurgy and the unequal distribution of surplus wealth in the Bronze Age. Archaeology, especially excavations of raider-massacre sites across the Neolithic cultures of Central Europe, has snuffed out that optimism. Humans, almost from their earliest evidence, set out on land to kill one another, and did the same on water as soon as they discovered how to cross it without losing their weapons. War at Sea starts with war canoes and moves on to China and its naval battles in the fifth century BC. Delgado draws a fundamental distinction between warships designed to ram and sink another craft and vessels built to carry armed crews who could bombard their adversaries with stones or arrows and eventually board to kill them with swords or axes in close combat. In the classical Greco-Roman Mediterranean, massive war galleys propelled by scores of trained oarsmen at first carried soldiers to hostile shores, but evolved into ramming vessels designed to puncture or capsize other galleys. Delgado discusses the huge “Athlit Ram,” made of cast bronze, which was found in shallow water near Haifa. Analysis of fragments of wood attached to it showed experts that the timbers of the whole galley had been shaped and assembled to support the ram: the “entire bottom of this ship was essentially the weapon,” not just the big metal fang at its bow.


The earliest naval battlefield to be identified by archaeologists, off the northwest tip of Sicily, was the site of Rome’s defeat of a Carthaginian war fleet in 249 BC, when more than eighty vessels were sunk: ship rams, ballast, helmets, and amphorae (storage jars) lie scattered over nearly a hundred square miles of seabed. It is the helmets that move Delgado. The most likable element in his book is his ever-returning concern for the human cost of naval war, for the dead. The helmets

speak to the lives lost, which given the 80 ships that sank, would have numbered into the thousands, perhaps even within range of 10,000 men…. One of the most powerful aspects of the archaeology of war does not come from studying ships and weapons and their effectiveness. The lesson, as shown even without visible or tangible human remains, is the terrible price of war…. The sea is our greatest battlefield, and as such, it is our largest graveyard.

Warships have always been lethally overcrowded spaces. The Mary Rose was smaller than an English village chapel when it rolled over and capsized off Portsmouth in 1545, but more than six hundred men perished inside. At the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the British lost fourteen warships and no fewer than 6,784 men. The American cruiser Juneau, sunk off Guadalcanal in 1942 during the ghastly battles in “Iron Bottom Sound,” lost 687 men, including the five “Fighting Sullivan” brothers. There were ten survivors. Two years ago, Paul Allen—a cofounder of Microsoft—led an expedition from his yacht that identified twenty-nine wrecks in the sound. The Juneau was found lying in water 13,800 feet deep. “Badly mangled,” Delgado writes, “it is a garden of twisted steel that speaks to its violent end. The ship’s name is visible on the stern, partly covered by crumpled hull plating.”

Delgado was for many years the maritime historian of the National Park Service. On land, the NPS is the custodian of that fraction of the American past whose material culture can be protected because it lies on public or federal land. Underwater, its claim to guardianship of wrecks seems less clearly defined. This NPS background influences War at Sea in at least two ways. The first is Delgado’s focus on the naval history of the United States, whose wrecks he has dived on and interpreted so often. That isn’t to say that the book ignores the rest of the maritime world. He has often seen and always vividly describes the debris of naval war overseas, from the defeat of the Mongol fleet’s invasion of Japan through to the apocalypse of giant battleships at Jutland in 1916, and beyond to the submarine disasters of the cold war.

But it is the wrecks of American conflicts, starting with the Revolution and the War of 1812—up and down Lake Champlain, on Maine rivers, or in Chesapeake Bay—that are Delgado’s central interest. This emphasis is well justified when it comes to the Civil War, which brought about a rush of innovation. The Hunley was raised complete with its dead, and after long conservation it became a public exhibit, in Charleston. The Cairo, a small Confederate warship, was an experimental ironclad; it was the first vessel to be sunk by an electrically detonated mine, a good example of how rapidly one wartime invention can prompt another. The USS Monitor, an ironclad that looked like a metal raft supporting a stovepipe funnel and a single rotating gun turret, survived a famous duel with the Confederacy’s much bigger Virginia in 1862, persuading the world’s admirals that a properly armored warship would be almost invincible.

Delgado’s other inheritance from his NPS years is his unconcealed fury at “vulture” salvage: the reckless destruction of archaeological evidence at a wreck site by treasure-seekers—usually well financed by greedy investors—or by unlicensed outfits with massive lifting equipment that are simply after the metal of modern warships. (China is a hungry market: “The metal is now a highly sought after commodity in China as it predates the atomic era, and without post-1945 radioactive contamination from decades of nuclear testing, the steel is used to make medical and scientific instruments and equipment.”) In Delgado’s view, “one of the greatest archaeological disasters in American history” was the plundering of the eighteenth-century sloop De Braak off the coast of Delaware by a group that somehow managed to win legal control of it as “salvors in possession.” The hull collapsed as it was being carelessly lifted, releasing a shower of artifacts and human remains but no treasure. And Delgado personally worked as an expert on the debris of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, the Spanish warship that blew up in 1804 and scattered half a million gold and silver coins across the seabed off Portugal (see illustration at the beginning of article). (The coins were retrieved by the Florida-based salvage outfit Odyssey Marine Exploration, but a celebrated legal battle ended when a US court ordered the coins returned to Spain, rejecting Odyssey’s suggestion that the treasure had been dumped overboard and had no connection to any wreck of a national warship.)

The German cruiser SMS Dresden flying a flag of surrender after being attacked by British ships off coast of Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile, 1915

Imperial War Museum, London

The German cruiser SMS Dresden flying a flag of surrender after being attacked by British ships off the coast of Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile, March 14, 1915

For Delgado, these wrecks are not only time capsules of heritage. Very often they are tombs, designated as official war graves by governments that hope to protect them from looting by salvage firms or souvenir-hunting divers. Sometimes the designation is respected, but often it is not. He writes that “when our team…dived the wrecks of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse off Malaysia [both sunk by Japanese aircraft in December 1941], they found, and did not film, a large number of human bones.” They also found that nameless scrap dealers had already begun to blast apart and remove the metal plates of the hulls.

Today, little is left of the battleship and battle cruiser whose loss so deeply shook British morale at a low point in an apparently endless war. A total of 1,454 warships were lost in that conflict, including 545 destroyers, 78 battleships and battle cruisers, and 47 aircraft carriers. “These rusting hulks represent the greatest number of lost warships in history, and hold the bones of over 100,000 drowned sailors and marines.”

Another recurrent Delgado theme is his disapproval of battleships. He uses the term to mean colossal armored ships carrying extravagantly heavy artillery in gun turrets, which became the core of naval fleets between the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries. He shows, convincingly enough, that battleships never justified their cost, that they inflamed arms races and international tension by their very existence, and that they never did what they were built to do: annihilate an enemy battle fleet. Only once, in the day and night between May 31 and June 1, 1916, off Jutland, did such a full-scale confrontation of battle fleets take place. Appalling casualties were inflicted within minutes, especially on the British side, as shells plunged into ammunition magazines and blasted huge ships to fragments. But the German fleet broke off the battle as the light faded and limped back to port, never to emerge again for the rest of the war.

Delgado is right, of course. World War II proved again and again—at Taranto, Pearl Harbor, Leyte Gulf—that these monsters were fatally vulnerable to aircraft and submarine attack. But coming from a naval family, I can’t quite suppress nostalgia. As a wartime child, I was allowed aboard the old battle cruiser Renown, stood in the shadow of its fifteen-inch guns, and wondered at the neatly circular hole punched through its steel armor by one of the German battleship Scharnhorst’s shells (which failed to explode) during an engagement off the Norwegian coast in April 1940. Much later, when my brother-in-law commanded the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, my sister on special occasions wore a brooch containing a crumb of metal. At Jutland, when the previous Invincible blew up, a tiny fragment of red-hot steel had landed on the open bridge of the warship next to it and jumped, smoking, about the deck. That was all that was left of the battle cruiser after it sank, taking more than a thousand men down with it. The fragment was encased in a jewel that—so I was told—each captain’s wife of future Invincibles is entitled to wear.

Delgado ends his long and excellently illustrated book with an account of the cold war’s ocean wreckage. In 1989 and 1990, he went with a National Parks Service expedition to Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands to examine the remains of the 242 ships assembled in 1946 for Operation Crossroads, the experimental detonation of nuclear weapons over a fleet. Dozens of tests followed, but the NPS found that, while the islands remained contaminated, the mangled ships on the seafloor had surprisingly lost any significant radiation: “After our…dives, Bikini was opened to wreck-diving tourists who possessed advanced skills.”

There has been no such comforting resolution to the mystery of the cold war submarines USS Thresher and Scorpion, lost respectively in 1963 and 1968 in the Atlantic, or of the Soviet submarine K-129, which sank in the Pacific, also in 1968. The Scorpion and the Soviet vessel contained nuclear weapons. All three have been located and partly salvaged, but a thick fog of secrecy and conspiracy theory obscures what happened to them. They sank abruptly and uncontrollably below their maximum depth until the enormous water pressure imploded their hulls, but why they did so is unknown—to the public, at least.

The only consolation is that Robert Ballard, who had been able to find the Thresher and the Scorpion, received US Navy funding to search for and discover the wreck of the Titanic in 1985. Since then, the interplay of commercial wreck-seeking with government technology for secret undersea operations has become even less transparent. And here, finally, Delgado grows slightly pessimistic: “Anything after [the Bikini tests] is too soon, still classified, ever sensitive, and as we appear to be entering a new Cold War, perhaps the most important thing we can do is assess the past.”