Traverse City Record-Eagle


October 19, 2010

Local program gets international attention

TRAVERSE CITY — A program started to help explore the bay is getting worldwide attention.

Local underwater archaeology students are still exploring Grand Traverse Bay, but other projects have included Scotland and Greece.

"What we're doing is training people to work in the Great Lakes," said Mark Holley, 42, instructor at Northwestern Michigan College. "Many of the skills will work anywhere in the world."

Through classes offered at NMC, partnerships with other schools and the Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve and licensing from the Nautical Archaeological Society, a student could feasibly get Ph.D.-level certification right here in Traverse City, Holley said.

A high-tech sonar device, loaned to explorers by Brian Abbott of Nautilus Marine Group, doesn't hurt either.

"Without the scanner, we'd still have a program but not as impressive," Holley said.

The sector scan lets archaeologists get images of wrecks and other underwater artifacts in a fraction of the time — and at a fraction of the cost — once needed, Holley said.

Holley and others explored a 5,000-year-old submerged city off the coast of Greece this summer, a mapping endeavour officials originally thought would take decades. Instead, the scan took just a few weeks.

"The Greek officials called it smoke and mirrors, something approaching magic," Holley said.

Chris Doyal, a Traverse City photographer, was among Holley's team in Greece; he also teaches underwater photography as part of the NAS certification courses.

"I was the hired gun, the pro, the lead guy," Doyal said of his work in Greece. Doyal tired of his previous career as a commercial photographer and is now merging his love of diving with his photography skills.

"It's got me diving with a purpose, diving for a reason," said Doyal, who has completed two of three NAS levels of certification.

The program has turned out to be a godsend for Traverse City native Justin Bensley, 23.

Working off an interest piqued by his grandma, Joan Bensley, an amateur archaeologist and head of the Omena Historical Society, Justin Bensley's interests are toward prehistoric finds.

"I want to look at the really old stuff," Bensley said.

After graduating from Traverse City West Senior High School in 2005, Bensley studied anthropology at the University of Montana, then got a master's in archaeology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, also Holley's alma mater.

He's now back in his hometown, sitting in on Holley's classes and working with the Preserve.

He's planning his Ph.D. thesis project, which he hopes will involve prehistoric people in this region.

"It's kind of wild how perfect this worked out," Bensley said.

Much of the credit for the international interest is given to Holley, who was inspired to become an archaeologist after seeing an "Indiana Jones" movie when he was 8.

A few years ago, Holley ran into Greg McMaster, then-president of the preserve, at a shipwreck talk and was recruited to NMC.

When he got here, he found "broad-based knowledge," he said, and lined up instructors for topics as diverse as forensic weather and the social history of ships.

Holley also credits NMC's foresight in authorizing the NAS program, which has been working from an $1,800 Biederman Foundation grant.

He also stresses that students don't have to be certified scuba divers — or even know how to swim — to study underwater archaeology.

Many of the local wrecks are in shallow enough water — 1 to 3 feet — and can be surveyed without going under.

And, because nautical archaeology is "a study of the sea, seafaring and everything associated with it," lighthouses, docks and pier structures are included.

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