Looking for pieces of ancient history in the seas

Underwater archaeologist Eric Smith with a sphinx carving he discovered at a 'sunken palace.' (Photo by Jerome delaFosse, provided by the Franck Goddio/ Hilti Family Trust)
Underwater archaeologist Eric Smith with a sphinx carving he discovered at a 'sunken palace.' (Photo by Jerome delaFosse, provided by the Franck Goddio/ Hilti Family Trust)

When underwater archaeologist Eric Smith goes diving, he’s not so interested in clear water and colorful fish. He’s looking for pieces of history.

Smith, 47, is based in Key West but his search for the ancient traces of mankind have led him around the globe.

“I didn’t want to be just a regular diver. I liked finding things,” he said during a recent lecture at The History of Diving Museum in Islamorada. “Visibility wasn’t a high priority.”

Smith said his passion for history has drawn him to the Mediterranean Sea as part of a team that discovered the sunken palace of Cleopatra in 1996, to the Philippines and other far-off locations. He has also done research diving in volcanic mountain lakes in South America.

Smith’s career took a major turn when he was introduced to French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, who led the expedition that found Cleopatra’s palace.

“In working with him I got to go on expeditions to Egypt and to the Philippines and Cuba,” he said. “The work was absolutely incredible.”

He said the exact location of Cleopatra’s palace was unknown, but it was near the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. Smith said they knew they were in the right spot when a statue modeled after Cleopatra’s father was discovered.

“It’s very rare to find a figure like that without the nose broken off,” he said. “But it was because of that sphinx that we were able to say ‘yes, Cleopatra’s palace was right here.’”

Layers of history

They worked in the area to find an ancient sunken city, but first they encountered artifacts of more recent history.

“We had to excavate the remains of a famous sea battle between Napoleon Bonaparte and Admiral Horatio Nelson, which took place over the site, hundreds of years apart,” he said. “So imagine shipwrecks on top of a sunken city. The power of the history there was overwhelming. We carefully worked on that site for a few years.”

Smith is still associated with Goddio’s team and also captains a research ship, the Discoverer Kelly Lund, which is based in Key West.

Smith said the goal of the team is to share its findings with the world, with a museum display traveling to several U.S. cities in the next two years.

“We just opened an exhibit in Philadelphia at the Franklin Institute. It will also go to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale in about two years,” he said.

Besides uncovering lost civilizations, Smith and his colleagues also recover and disarm bombs and other explosives that have been dumped offshore by the military.

“The State of New Jersey was doing a beach replenishment and they pumped sand up onto the beach, and some bombs got pumped there, too,” he said. “Even if they don’t explode, they are full of toxic chemicals that can be released into the sea.”

His crew developed an oversized metal detector to find the bombs underwater and under several feet of sand.

Smith said his next project may be in Korea, salvaging ancient Chinese warships.

History of Diving Museum Director Debra Iles said Smith has lectured at the museum annually since it opened in August 2006.

“He’s always one of our favorite speakers because of the breadth of his exploration,” she said. “What a fascinating life he has. But he’s such an understated person, considering all that he’s done.”

Chris Rule and his wife, on a Keys dive vacation from Jacksonville, attended Smith’s presentation and called it “wonderful.”

“We’ve toured the museum before and we saw this lecture on the museum’s Facebook page and we decided to come see it,” Rule said.

Smith encouraged everyone to keep a curious attitude about the world around them.

“Never give up wondering what’s out there, even right under your feet or under your fins,” he said.