A hundred years after its sinking, Titanic rests on a muddy plain, torn apart, scattered, slowly eroding into the eternal darkness of the sea. It is a ghost town, its well-preserved decks and artifacts a powerful reminder of the ship as it was, the people who lived and worked on it, and its loss.
Today, the impending centenary of the Titanic disaster features prominently in the news. But why – a hundred years later – is Titanic still making headlines?
In the popular imagination, the Titanic tragedy is seen as the end of an era, and the beginning of a new, more terrible time in which people increasingly paid the price for technological advancement in an expanding and competitive world.
At the time, Titanic’s sinking was a different kind of story – a news event that captured headlines in what was practically “real time.” It was reported “as it happened” – the intercepted wireless calls for help, and the resultant pause for news as the rescue ship, Carpathia, steamed to New York, without revealing how many, or who, had died. The stories that then emerged – of hubris, pathos, heroism, and tragedy – are powerful and human stories, that echo our timeless myths.
But when the ship was rediscovered on Sept. 1, 1985, Titanic provided humanity with a powerful, physical reminder that this was not just a story, not a myth, but something real and terrible.
It is in that physical connection to the past that Titanic is most powerful. Expeditions to the sunken hulk have brought back increasingly graphic images as well as artifacts. Some 400 visitors have gone into the abyss to see this sunken museum at the bottom of the sea. I understand that compulsion to go, look, and learn. I understand it as an archaeologist, as a former museum director, and as someone who works to protect and share the special places in the oceans that we as society decide to set apart and save as underwater parks and marine sanctuaries.
After 27 years, we have learned much about Titanic, but there remains much to learn.
In my visits to the wreck, most recently in 2010 as part of a team conducting the first full mapping of the site, I have been struck, both scientifically and emotionally, by what I have seen. I am amazed by the sea’s power to not only claim Titanic, but to also hold it as a monument, a memorial, and an archaeological site.
The archaeology of Titanic can, and should be, more than simply understanding what happened – it should be an exposition to those who were lost that night, especially those whose stories have hitherto not been heard because they were poor or did not speak English, or because they were swallowed by the sea – and, seemingly, by history. The well-preserved remains of Titanic, and a study of what their intact baggage can tell us, give modern archaeologists a chance to rectify some of that injustice and give those people a voice.
We mapped Titanic in 2010 to gain a complete understanding of what lies down there, and that knowledge can now guide thoughtful science. Those maps are also a powerful tool for protecting the wreck – a detailed inventory of what is down there as one means of safeguarding against those who, without consent, might take things away from this undersea museum not to learn or share, but simply to plunder. We can, with the maps and high-resolution images from 2010, now assess environmental and human changes to the wreck and make decisions, as a society, about what we want done with Titanic. Should future visits be conducted with certain rules, as is the case in marine sanctuaries or in historic sites, museums, and cemeteries on land? Many people have said yes, and our maps will help inform the conversations that will follow now that we have essentially “turned on the lights” to see what has happened to Titanic since its rediscovery.
Through the vivid and detailed images of Titanic that we obtained in 2010, the general public has been exposed to a world as it was – a lost “city on the sea,” the place where the tragedy happened, and the real human stories of that night. The images have virtually raised the wreck into the 21st century, reminding us of the ultimate lessons of places like Titanic: In the seeming solitude of the sea, there are places that are inexorably linked to our history. If we discard or forget that history, if we forge forward without regard to the lessons of the past and reminders of our limitations and frailty, we do a disservice to our ancestors, to ourselves, and to our descendants.
Written by: James P. Delgado
James P. Delgado is the Director of Maritime Heritage in the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (US). He was the chief scientist for the 2010 scientific mapping expedition to Titanic.