I hover above the ancient marble column about 45 metres below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. Holding my underwater camera housing in one hand, I use the other to direct my dive model through the azure water. The photograph I have visualised in my mind’s eye, and meticulously planned, comes together. I lift the camera and click the shutter. Two thousand years ago a Roman ship sank, lost and forgotten off the coast of Turkey. Today, I am here to photograph its excavation.

My journey began when I was 11 years old, studying a segment on oceanography in my sixth grade science class. Buried within the book were two short pages on underwater archaeology. Upon reading them, I decided then and there that that was “what I was going to be when I grow up”!

On the Bajo de la Campana Excavation in La Manga, Spain, Arianna Villani artefact a tripod bowl to the surface

I began gathering the pieces I would need. I earned my Open Water certification during high school in 10-centimetre visibility off New York City. To practise underwater photography, I burned through rolls of film shooting fluorescent orange golf balls in the local pool using my first “real” camera, a Sea&Sea Motormarine 35mm. In college, I majored in anthropology with a focus on archaeology and a minor in art history. My goal was to work with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA).

I solicited advice, wrote emails, made inquiries… The persistence paid off. One evening I got the call: “Would you like to come to Egypt to excavate and photograph a shipwreck?“ My life’s dream was coming true!

Assistant Field Director Staci Willis holds up an artefact that she has successfully mapped in, and is now preparing to raise, on the Godavaya Shipwreck Excavation, Sri Lanka

My role on the excavation is to create “sexy” underwater images both for publication, and to help raise funds for the excavation. Once a significant artefact is found, I work out a plan to shoot it. I’ll conceive an image, then choose from the photographic tools in my arsenal to capture it. (Sometimes I make what I need on the fly, such as the snoot I crafted in Sri Lanka from a soda bottle, duct tape and black marker.)

If models are involved, I’ll sketch the shot and we’ll thoroughly discuss the photograph on the surface. Time and communication underwater are limited; the more that is hashed out ahead of time, the smoother the shoot will go. We dive in shifts, so to reduce the likelihood of backscatter, I usually go first. Descending onto an ancient artefact, knowing that the last person who touched it lived thousands of years ago, sends a chill down my spine!

To date, I’ve worked as the photographer on five underwater excavations around the world: Sri Lanka for the ship from the 2nd century BC carrying a load of heavy iron that likely caused its demise; Egypt for the 18th-century Ottoman wreck, its impressive wooden hull not yet devoured by shipworms; Spain for the 7th-century BC Phoenician shipwreck, its trade goods spilled along a gentle underwater slope; Turkey for both a Roman wreck carrying an entire column in sections, and a Bronze Age wreck.

Anancient amphora in Kizilburun, Turkey

For the rest of this article (Scuba Diver 2016 Issue 3 No 109) and other stories, check out our past issues here or download a digital copy here.

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