When A History of the World in Sixteen Shipwrecks by Stewart Gordon showed up in my early reviewers program, I eagerly bid on it because the title at once conjured
It turned out that was not quite the case. There are indeed sixteen chapters and each one is technically devoted to a ship, although in fact some of these are not actually shipwrecks at all. The first chapter, for instance, focuses upon the Dufuna Dugout, a remarkably preserved dugout canoe from Africa that dates back at least eight thousand years. Much of the narrative explores the history of dugouts over the following centuries, rather than the culture that produced Dufuna. The next one is also not a shipwreck, but the Khufu Barge, a ceremonial buried boat excavated near the base of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, which serves to spark a discussion of trade in the ancient world that is only peripherally related to the boat in this burial.
I was pleased to find the next chapter actually devoted to Uluburun itself, and it is arguably one of the best portions of the book – or maybe I just feel that way because it corresponds more closely with my interests. I am fairly deeply read in Uluburun, but to Gordon’s credit his treatment manages to reveal elements that were entirely new to me, such as the incredible story of the mouse trapped in a food storage jar whose DNA was extracted some 3400 hundred years later to determine its provenance in Ugarit in north coastal Syria! I often champion the marriage of history and technology: perhaps nothing better captures its essence and potential than this. Gordon goes on to describe other components of the cargo and how scientific analyses determined their respective source geographies. He also explores the surprisingly interconnected ancient world of trade among Hittites, Egyptians, Mycenaeans, Assyrians and others in the era prior to the mysterious collapse of Bronze Age civilizations circa 1150 BCE.
Regrettably, the Uluburun chapter is hardly typical of the rest of the book. While the volume does contain other wrecks with cargo, such as the Intan (circa 1000 CE), with some exceptions many of the subjects under discussion lack tangible remains and are utilized primarily as examples of ships in service at the time. The chapter that follows Uluburun, for example, is devoted to another ship burial, this one the sixth century CE Sutton Hoo in England. What becomes clear is that Gordon’s book is less a history of the world told through shipwrecks than a nautical history of select vessels that he has chosen to study and write about. The ancient world is strangely underrepresented: some two millennia separate Uluburun from Sutton Hoo. Conspicuous in its absence, for instance, is a full chapter devoted to the famous trireme that so dominated the ancient Greek world, or any of the various warships that comprised the Roman imperial fleet. (The trireme does receive some oddly placed peripheral attention in a later discussion of Barbary war galleys, but it certainly merits much more.) We have no surviving triremes, so the omission of these and other ancient boats with no physical remains would make sense if the book was limited to actual physical wrecks with artifacts, but it is not.
To his credit, Gordon is a fine writer and much of his narrative is clearly a labor of love of all things nautical. The non-initiated, such as myself, will appreciate his detailed descriptions of how boats and their component parts function on a body of water. Also, the book is well-documented with a thick sheaf of notes at the end and plenty of illustrations, although a certain lack of maps. More than half of the volume is focused upon the last five centuries, right up to the 2012 Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster. Each chapter stands alone and while arranged chronologically do not need to be read sequentially. Some are more stimulating than others, but I suspect that is less due to Gordon’s talents than the interests of the reader. One of my favorites, for instance, was the one devoted to Lucy Walker, the steamboat that exploded and sank on the Ohio River in 1844, which fit neatly into my studies of antebellum American history.
The chief problem with the book, as I see it, is entirely thematic: it seems that each chapter would make a fine article for a magazine, but there is almost nothing that connects one to the other as part of a larger narrative. Even the title is unwieldy as an effort to unite the respective essays in a common thread, since as I have noted earlier, many of the boats are not actually shipwrecks. I suspect Gordon himself was aware of this flaw: neither the “Introduction” nor the “Conclusion” – each only about two and half pages in length – convincingly explain why these studies of the sixteen selected ships belong together in one volume. I would nevertheless recommend A History of the World in Sixteen Shipwrecks to students of nautical history, with the caveat that the component segments arguably are of greater value than the sum of these parts.