"All the energies poured into critical theory, into novel and demystifying theoretical praxes like the new historicism and deconstruction and Marxism have avoided the major, I would say determining, political horizon of modern Western culture, namely imperialism."

Edward W. Said 1993 Culture and Imperialism, p. 60.

In The Archaeology of the African Diaspora in the Americas, Theresa Singleton and Mark Bograd (1995: 29) lament that the field of historical archaeology is "theory poor, not data poor". The same, probably more, can be said of nautical archaeology.

Nautical archaeology has not sufficiently problematised the concept of empire; it has not critically engaged European colonialism, its own colonial legacy, nor situated itself, in terms of power, in relation to the human subjects it studies. In this article, I will argue that it is scientistic, and does not adequately place its inquiries into a well-rounded contemporary context, practising a limp, lifeless historicity that for various reasons is a by-product of a colonial mindset. Lastly, it imprudently maintains that anything that isn't treasure hunting must somehow be ‘science’, as if this question had already been resolved [Note 1]. I believe that this observation is misguided. The question isn't whether we should be practicing science, but what kind. In short, nautical archaeology in the western hemisphere, as a field inextricably engaged with the history of European imperialism, must fulfill its scholarly -- and I believe ultimately its moral -- obligation to engage in a more critical discussion of the nature and history of imperialism both here and elsewhere. The reasons why nautical archaeology should do this (and is uniquely positioned to do so) seem obvious, yet few if any practitioners of the discipline have occupied themselves with studying questions such as this, for reasons that are also not that difficult to ascertain, a point to which I will return.

Just what does colonialism mean? Does it mean the same thing as imperialism? And since historical/nautical archaeologists are engaged with the material remains of this colonial period (as defined below), as well as its history, what points of view should they take towards their finds and the field in general? (for a fuller comment on this, see Bill Frazer's review of Charles Orser's A Historical Archaeology of the Modern World in the first issue of assemblage).‘Postcolonialism’ or ‘colonial discourse analysis’ as an anthropological or historiographic ‘school’ can probably trace its roots to Edward W. Said's publication of Orientalism in 1978, the influence of which has been considerable. It can be understood to include "Third World and diasporic experiences containing a complex set of cultural, ethnographic, political, and economic processes and conflicts" (Williams and Chrisman 1994). In Culture and Imperialism (1993:9) Said defines imperialism as:

"the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory; colonialism, which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on a distant territory."

In the introduction to their reader on postcolonial theory, Williams and Chrisman (1994: 2) define the difference between colonialism and imperialism this way:

"......colonialism, the conquest and direct control of other people’s land, is a particular phase in the history of imperialism, which is now best understood as the globalisation of the capitalist mode of production, its penetration of previously non-capitalist regions of the world, and destruction of pre- or non-capitalist forms of social organisation. From its beginnings in the sixteenth century, capitalism has spread outward from its European heartland according to different rhythms and different pressures, by means of trade and conquest, economic forms of power as well as military, to the point where it now constitutes a truly global economy. The colonial phase, particularly the rapid acquisition of territories by European nations in the late nineteenth century (most notably in the "Scramble for Africa") represents the need for access to new (preferably captive) markets and sources for raw materials, as well as the desire to deny these to competitor nations."

Postcoloniality can be said to refer not just to the emergence of states or territories from colonial rule in the political sense; it can also be about a state of mind, a complex condition of relationships, an intertwining of cultures and peoples frequently referred to by many anthropologists and historians simply as 'modernity'. Eurocentrism, the intellectual and cultural descendant of colonialism, assumes, among other things, that most modern ‘western’ innovations (in literature, art, industry, etc.) were spawned and nurtured within the metropolis, essentially isolated from outside influence. The facts of imperialism indisputably demonstrate otherwise; what is much too infrequently recognised is the degree to which the core depended upon and is the product of the periphery. It is here that the promise of a fully postcolonial nautical archaeology looms large; the reciprocal relationships forged by empire in the construction of the current world system are discernible if we choose to look for them.

The Ideology of Seafaring: Only Europeans Had Ships, Everybody Else Had Boats.

Many people are still not sure what ‘nautical archaeology’ means: ‘sunken history’, ‘archaeology beneath the sea’ or ‘maritime archaeology’ have all been used at one point or another [Note 2]. Broadly speaking, nautical archaeology is generally considered to be about the history or anthropology of ‘seafaring’, that being defined, perhaps, as the relationship between humankind and the sea. In terms of period, the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), the professional organisation to which most American and Canadian historical and nautical archaeologists are affiliated, further confines its inquiries primarily to the ‘archaeology of the modern world’, particularly the post-1400 New World [Note 3].

A historically curious Martian or other alien coming to earth might view this as a somewhat arbitrary delimitation; he/she/it might wonder "just what is it that happened in the 15th century that was so important?" It turns out, as we all know, that something ‘big’ did happen, particularly in 1492, something certainly worth knowing about, and something worthy of scholarly attention and inscription: Columbus' expedition to the Americas.

But something as worthy of scholarly attention and critique happened in the year 1414. Wilson (1992: 22-25) describes it this way:

"A huge fleet left port in 1414 and sailed westward on a voyage of trade and exploration. The undertaking far surpassed anything Columbus, Isabella, and Ferdinand could have envisioned. The fleet included at least sixty-two massive trading galleons, any of which could have held Columbus's three small ships on its decks. The largest galleons were more than 400 feet long and 150 feet wide (the Santa Maria, Columbus' largest vessel, was about 90 feet by 30 feet), and each could carry about 1,500 tons (Columbus' ships combined could carry about 400 tons). More than one hundred smaller vessels accompanied the galleons. All told, 30,000 people went on the voyage, compared with Columbus' 90-some."

Although increasing attention is being paid to it, this fleet -- the Chinese admiral Zheng He's (Cheng Ho) famous ‘Star Raft’-- receives no more than a passing mention in the SHA nautical archaeology literature [Note 4]. Anyone who doubts this is encouraged to take a look for themselves. When one considers that the archaeologists at Ships of Discovery (a leading Texas-based nautical archaeology research group), for instance, say that their goal is "the scientific exploration of one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of technology: the development of the first true seagoing ship" (Keith 1992: 2), this glaring omission is particularly curious. Everybody knows about Columbus, but almost nobody knows about his Chinese predecessor who predated him by almost 80 years [Note 5]. It would seem that a Chinese exploratory venture to Africa lacks the panache, the romance, the impact of Spanish conquistadores taming the vast American wilderness; it lacks the muscle or dynamic tension of Columbus the dreamer, he of humble origins, looking to find a trade route to the Indies at all costs, for 'God, Gold, and Glory'; it lacks the sophisticated religious overtones, that sense of spiritual eventuality, of inevitability, of tragedy...

Over thirty years ago, Noam Chomsky noted that "It is a convention of scholarship that...[it demonstrates] naiveté and muddle-headed sentimentality" (1987 [1966]: 86). It is more than simply unfortunate that Chomsky’s insight in this area applies in such volumes to the majority of nautical archaeology scholarship. The implication is clear: ‘seafaring’ means primarily European maritime endeavour, the only seagoing tradition considered appropriate for serious nautical archaeological inquiry due to its perceived pre-eminence. The only real exceptions to this rule of thumb, ironically, are the treasure hunters, who operate under a similar set of Eurocentric assumptions, but are simply more brazen in their opportunistically enraptured quests for fame and fortune (not too unlike their colonial predecessors).

Motives, intentions and interest are more than simply personal decisions. Decisions about ‘what’ and ‘where’ to study or excavate are also political determinations with tangible, not just abstract consequences. As generators of knowledge for public consumption and accumulators of intellectual and cultural capital (Bourdieu: 1977), archaeologists must acknowledge that the accounts they generate are not simply ‘partial’ truths, but are also positioned (Abu-Lughod : 1991) [Note 6]. Thus it will no longer suffice to hide behind a research design (that is in accordance with current ‘scientific’ standards or with local or federal laws, of course) or to pretend that projects take place in a political or moral vacuum. There is a difference between scientific detachment and denial. It is good that scholars from historically oppressed groups are now pushing disciplines such as archaeology to fill the gaping epistemological and moral holes highlighted here.

The African Diaspora: What Nautical Archaeologists Don't Study and Why.

The emergence of a nautical archaeology from the standpoint of the ‘victims’ is inevitable: the reality is simply too stark to continue to ignore. The almost utter neglect by nautical archaeologists of slave ship archaeology, for instance, is a moral disgrace. One would think that a discipline approaching its fifth decade of formalisation (particularly a discipline that came of age in the 1960’s) would have confronted this contentious issue by now, especially since it constituted such an overwhelming part of the developing hemisphere’s maritime commerce. Instead, nautical archaeologists have placed their collective heads in the sand and have been tossing pot-shots at opportunistic treasure hunters who have funded slave ship excavations [Note 7]. Anyone who doubts that slave ships are almost utterly ignored by nautical archaeology is encouraged to have a look for themselves; some places to begin an inquiry include Bass (1996), Steffy (1994) and Lakey (1997).

Surely we can all agree that there is plenty here to be done. In terms of its effects on human beings, the transatlantic slave trade is probably the single most important maritime phenomenon in history. Estimates vary, but generally speaking at least ten million slaves were brought to the western hemisphere as a result of this trade, the bulk going to Brazil, with the rest going to the Caribbean region, North America, and elsewhere in the western hemisphere. Many millions more were directly or indirectly affected by the trade, worldwide.

Western mainstream societies are in deep denial about the realities of much of the African-American experience, and it is probably unreasonable to expect nautical archaeology (a field as white as a freshly pressed set of bed sheets) to be exempt from the moral amnesia [Note 8]. But, as shall be explained below, it is unacceptable to continue to ignore this history on scientific grounds (in addition to the other reasons argued for here), particularly when it is so obviously crucial to any understanding of the way the western hemisphere developed and views itself today.

A big part of the problem is that the 'history of seafaring' has been interpreted to mean the 'history of shipbuilding technology'. The two are not the same. For varying reasons, nautical archaeology has never truly been anthropological or historical, with few exceptions. It's not a secret. Bass (1975: 129), for example, notes: "because of this attitude prevailing among humanists, most of our excavation funds had come from sources more concerned with underwater technology than with historical results." This pervasive influence has left a huge theoretical gap within the field and has led to the privileging of technological and methodological hodgepodgery at the expense of substantive cultural, political, and historical analysis. At Texas A&M University (a leading American training source for nautical archaeologists), for instance, serious emphasis on cultural analysis is practically nonexistent. Instead, the focus is on subjects such as ship construction (ANT 616), histories of shipbuilding technology (ANT 615) and prehistoric technology (ANT 621). Are Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn (1996: 11) wrong when they write in their introductory archaeology text that archaeology is a branch ("the past tense") of cultural anthropology? [Note 9]

If nautical archaeologists actually read some of the better literature being produced by cultural anthropologists, instead of instinctively criticising it as 'unscientific' or 'relativistic' [Note 10], they might have, for example, encountered this interesting observation by English scholar Paul Gilroy:

"It bears repetition that ships were the living means by which the points within the Atlantic world were joined. Accordingly they need to be thought of as complex cultural and political units rather than abstract embodiments of the triangular trade. Of course they are machines, but the writings and experiences of black intellectuals suggests that they are something more -- a means to conduct political dissent and, possibly, a distinct mode of cultural production" (1992: 193).

Indigenous Peoples, Ship Reconstructions and 'Scientific' Nautical Archaeology: What Do They Think?

The tendency to regard the colossal moral atrocity of the Indigenous genocide in the New World in terms of a 'discovery' (e.g. Ships of Discovery) paradigm or as ‘encounter and exchange’ (e.g. Seeds of Change) remains a fundamental and persistent proclivity. Despite many debates about the ‘Columbian polemic’ (for further discussion, see Butzer 1992, Churchill 1996 and the references cited there), the views of the survivors of this ‘exchange’ continue to be excluded from schoolbooks and public representations and any connection between the deliberate and systematic extermination of the native population, begun by Columbus and similar American policies throughout history, continues to be relegated to the intellectual rubbish-heap. So dominant has the ideologisation of indigenous inferiority become, that it is often difficult to see the obvious. So when Dehatkadons (Wright 1992: 5), a traditional chief of the Onondaga Iroquois, observes that "You cannot discover an inhabited land. Otherwise I could cross the Atlantic and 'discover' England", the actual features central to the Columbian 'encounter' (greed, avarice, paternalism, self-serving lust for power, hypocrisy) conveniently omitted from mainstream discourse, begin to come to the foreground, and the perverse logic behind the European arrogance of discovery begins to make itself manifest [Note 11]. Karl W. Butzer (1992: 346) is indeed correct when he remarks that the "moral implications" of the confrontation "cannot be ignored indefinitely", not that generations of myth makers and other "experts in legitimation" (to borrow Gramsci's (1971) usage) haven't tried and continue to do so.

Eurocentric 'science' is not the appropriate tool to deal with these issues; indeed, is not the history of anthropology in the western hemisphere the history of the 'anthropologisation' and 'archaeologisation' of indigenous populations? Is it not at least slightly disturbing that under the rubric of 'experimental archaeology', many nautical archaeologists feel at home reconstructing the ships of Spanish Conquistadores, French explorers (maybe), or English colonists, ships that symbolise the misery and eventual extermination of most of the indigenous western hemispheric population? Furthermore, why do many nautical archaeologists bemoan the reproduction of the Columbus Fleet currently housed at the Corpus Christi museum, Texas -- not because of what it represents, but because the ships are inauthentic reproductions with no 'scientific' value? [Note 12] Shanks and Tilley (1992: 1, 248, 253) urge us to examine critically the meaning of archaeology as "cultural practice within late capitalism in the west" and to view "material culture as not merely an object of analysis but forming part of a social reality charged with meaning." They go on to note that "material culture, in which archaeologists have their main interest, becomes part of the way in which social reality becomes constituted. It must therefore be seen as an active element in society, not as a passive reflection of social process." It behoves us, therefore, as cultural resource managers, park consultants, museum administrators, academics, state and federal officials, and not just as intellectuals, to engage in such self-reflection, particularly when much of our cultural practice continues to ‘silence the past’ of so many. In 1992, American Indian activist (and now motion picture star) Russell Means captured the sentiment of many when he wrote that "For the World to Live, Columbus Must Die." The role of nautical archaeology in the perpetuation of morally reprehensible cultural products is long overdue for scrutiny. The survivors of the ‘encounter and exchange’ know all too well what ‘scientific’ anthropology and archaeology has meant for them and their families, and it is about time that nautical archaeologists realised it too.


Ships are often technological marvels, but their reification by nautical archaeologists has obscured the obvious: they are primarily cultural and political entities and ought to be thought of and investigated as such. As the mechanism by which European empire was initiated and consolidated, these machines should be looked at within a much larger context, not simply as ends in themselves. The presumption of European seafaring omnipotence that permeates nautical archaeology must be rejected. The next generation of seafaring scholars should repudiate the previous triumphalist and over-romanticised attempts to discover ‘why’ European vessels and seafaring traditions were so superior to others, hence allowing them to ‘conquer’ the world. Continuing in that direction will get us nowhere. We know by now that the picture is was much more complicated than that [Note 13].

For nautical archaeologists interested in studying the slave trade, it is, I think, important that the budding slave ship scholar keep several things in mind. For example, it's one thing to say that "slavery was bad" or that "slavery is bad". It's another thing, however, to critically examine the conditions under which representations of slavery are produced by scholars (Trouillot: 148). The political context must be made explicit, the contentious issues given their due, and the socio-economic and power relations made plain. Let me be blunt: I am not calling simply for minority labourers, excavators, and the 'inclusion' of African-American perspectives into research designs. ‘Consultation', whatever may be meant by this elusive term, is not enough either. Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1995: 149) observes that:

"Historical representations -- be they books, commercial exhibits or public commemorations -- cannot be conceived only as vehicles for the transmission of knowledge. They must establish some relation to that knowledge. Further, not any relation will do. Authenticity is required, lest the representation becomes a fake, a morally repugnant spectacle."

A sincere engagement with empire almost invariably opens the door to emotion-laden retorts and counter-retorts. However, the argument that a study of slavery is "too controversial", or that there are "a lot of people who would rather not discuss the subject" (increasing academic focus notwithstanding [Note 14]) in no way dismisses the defining roles these events played in the construction of western hemispheric civilisation, nor does it discharge the colossal moral consequences of these events. No amount of 'scientific' inquiry can obscure or sanitise this. A brief account from Newman and Sawyer (1996: 8) of the Middle Passage makes this apparent:

"Stripped naked and branded like animals to identify ownership, the Africans were stowed as cargo in ships bound for America. Slavery was a business, so the higher the ratio of slaves to cubic foot of hold space, the greater the income, and the less they were fed, the greater the profits. Slaves were chained together, usually by shackles on the ankles, and arranged in cramped ships' holds, unable to move, turn or stand, often lying against each other like spoons on shelves only eighteen inches high. Women and children were usually allowed more mobility, but this was so that the white sailors could have sexual access to them. Continual rape was the norm: the crew had "unlimited license" according to John Newton, the slave ship captain who later became an abolitionist."

Archaeology, like history, has tremendous potential as a political tool, perhaps even more so. Groups that have been on the receiving end of that power know this quite well. What is needed is more than a simple recognition that representations of the past are created within the present. Within a potential postcolonial turn in archaeology lies the exciting promise that the past is not just constructed in the present but can contribute to the construction of a future that embraces all of history and helps us to reach a humanistic (but not necessarily conservative) awareness that "....all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic" (Said 1993: xxv).


An earlier version of the points I raise here was presented at the 1997 Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) meetings in Corpus Christi, Texas. I am grateful to the staff of assemblage and to my anonymous reviewer for allowing me the opportunity to present these views.

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Note 1. References to 'anthropological archaeology', 'archaeology as science' or to the need to practice some type of 'scientific archaeology' abound in the nautical archaeology literature. In his discussion of the significance of the USS Arizona, Delgado (1992: 78), for instance, says that "archaeology should function as a systematic scientific tool that extracts meaningful human behavior from the material record." In the same volume, Carrell (1992: 4) argues that "the construction or replication of objects...are the next steps in any complete exercise in anthropological archaeology." In the most recent issue of Underwater Archaeology, Leshikar-Denton (1997: 36) refers to the need to ensure that the "underwater cultural heritage" of the Cayman islands is "scientifically" investigated. The basic question I am asking is this: What exactly is this monolithic science to which they are referring? In their zeal to combat treasure hunting, many nautical archaeologists seem to have forgotten that the issue is by no means settled (I am not advocating an ascientific epistemology, I merely wish to introduce the idea that the subject has been, and continues to be, the subject of considerable debate). Additionally, there is no ‘binary opposition’ between ‘scientific’ nautical archaeology and treasure hunting, which becomes clear when one examines more closely the Eurocentric presuppositions under which both operate.

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Note 2. Sunken History is the title of a book written by Robert Silverberg (1963). George Bass published Archaeology Beneath the Sea in 1975. And in The Sea Remembers, (1987), Peter Throckmorton mostly uses the convention 'maritime archaeology'.

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Note 3. The SHA refers to this in one of its membership/information brochures and on its WWW site. Does it bother anyone (perhaps it’s just me) that the 'archaeology of the modern world' to which the SHA refers is to a disproportionate degree conducted by and written from the standpoint of the ‘winners’ instead of the ‘victims’?

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Note 4. This is not to say that Chinese seafaring has never been mentioned in journals or at conferences. It has, most recently at SHA meetings in Corpus Christi, Texas, at which Chinese conservator Li Guoquing presented a paper on Song Dynasty anchors.

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Note 5. Comparisons, of course, should always be carried out with care. Nonetheless, the tendency by Ships of Discovery to predominately look for the roots of the 'first true seagoing ship' in European vessels is something it might be well advised to reconsider. Viewed in the long term, seafaring, like agriculture, is probably an environmental adaptation and is something humans have been doing for a long time (I'm not an environmental determinist but, like Fernand Braudel (1973), I think that the Longue Durée approach can explain a lot). Thus searching for such a ship almost exclusively in Europe or in Euro-America is bound to return a very skewed and one-sided picture of the development of seafaring. But one of the additional questions this paper raises is this: why do we care about the 'first true seagoing ship' in the first place? The search for such a ship is fraught with Eurocentric assumptions of historical linearity and notions of progress.

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Note 6. Trouillet (1995: 15) makes a similar point. "The past", he notes, "-- or, more accurately, pastness -- is a position."

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Note 7. Begrudgingly, of course. The accidental discovery of the Henrietta Marie by the famous (or infamous, depending on which view is taken) treasure hunter Mel Fisher is another supreme irony: Fisher is reportedly quite surprised that the travelling U.S. exhibition of the artefacts is receiving as much attention as it is. Should this come as a surprise? Not to those who are willing to admit that treasure hunting and nautical archaeology have more in common than many of their practitioners think, as outlined in footnote #1.

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Note 8. "Of all the modern social sciences, anthropology is the one historically most closely tied to colonialism, since it was often the case that anthropologists and ethnologists advised colonial rulers on the manners and mores of the native people" (Said 1993: 152).

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Note 9. The Institute of Nautical Archaeology and the Organization of American States are currently sponsoring investigations of a potential slave ship (at time of writing, this ship has not been positively identified) lying in about 90 feet of sea water in Kingstown Harbour, St. Vincent. If the vessel does turn out to be a slave ship, will the issues addressed in this paper be attended to? Or will representations (again) over-focus on naval architecture, artefact assemblages and diving technology, instead of placing the wreck in a proper ethnohistorical and anthropological context?

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Note 10. Lest anyone has doubts about where nautical archaeology’s priorities truly lie, the following example should suffice: in a 1996 response letter to Archaeology magazine (p. 12), former Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) president Fred Hocker chides ‘Marxist’ archaeologist Randall McGuire for not being able to answer satisfactorily the question "what did you find?" to a lay public which, he contends, has "serious questions about how their philanthropic or tax dollars are spent." Arguing that archaeologists are "in the public education business," Hocker displays a remarkable tendency to confuse neo-corporatism with knowledge.

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Note 11. Let me try to fill in the gap a little: in her speech An Indigenous View of North America (1995) American Indian activist Winona Laduke, a member of the Anishinabeg nation in northern Minnesota, explains why she views the North American continent as a big sea with over 700 islands -- Indian Reservations -- stuck at various locations within it. These "Islands in a Continent," as she calls them, do not really occupy a prominent place in the American popular imagination. Aboriginal Americans are not thought of as contemporary people. Instead they are often talked about in a manner similar to that of an extinct species, or in terms of what Samuel Wilson has called a "contribution school" -- a couple of street names or historic landmarks, or worse yet, false pride by many in an indigenous, usually Cherokee, heritage that remains conveniently detached from tribal history or culture. This is a mistake, because indigenous peoples are not extinct. Laduke (1995) notes that, in fact, in countries such as Guatemala and Bolivia, they constitute over 80% of the population. In Canada, for example, if you go above the 50th parallel (about where Edmonton is), the majority of the population (85%) is native. She goes on to say that "on a worldwide scale, it is said that there are 5,000 nations of indigenous people, 500,000,000 indigenous people in the world."

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Note 12. One of the more interesting and entertaining attempts at proving the need for 'replicating a voyage of discovery' is Lakey (1992: 29-30). She aspires to demonstrate that "chaos theory is eminently applicable to the question of Columbus’ landfall" by recounting the early-1980’s attempt by National Geographic and Joe Judge to retrace Columbus’ first voyage via computer simulation. In arguing that replica voyages "have great potential to answer the kinds of important behavioral, systemic, contextual, processual questions posed by archaeological research", she not only inappropriately extends the reach of chaos theory (Gleick’s comment (1987: 5) that "now that science is looking, chaos seems to be everywhere" (p. 5) seems strangely apt), but also exemplifies the type of self-serving (if oftentimes unconscious) scientism typical of much of the nautical archaeology establishment.

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Note 13. For a preliminary discussion of the implications, objectives, and intentions behind postcolonial nautical archaeological work (as well as a more developed, if modest, discussion of most of the points raised in this paper), see McGhee (1997).

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Note 14. "....while studies of the cost effectiveness of empire and domination for "the nation" may have academic interest, they are only marginally relevant to the study of policy formation.." (emphasis added, Chomsky 1993: 17).

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About the Author.

Fred L. McGhee is a graduate student in the African Diaspora Program and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also a former U.S. Navy Special Operations Officer and a Plankowner of USS GLADIATOR (MCM 11).

© Fred L. McGhee 1997

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