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Deep Findings

Underwater archaeology rides a wave of increased sophistication, thanks to SU’s Cathryn Newton

Mar 26, 2014 — Article by: Rob Enslin

Photo of Cathy Newton speaking at SU

Cathryn Newton at SU

When Cathryn Newton helped discover the USS Monitor in 1973, she was dealing with not just the most famous shipwreck of the Civil War (and of all U.S. naval history), but a paleontological and archaeological find of “epoch” proportions.

“Shipwrecks can be understood as large fossils that sink to the sea floor, much as deceased whales sink and become part of the fossil record,” says Newton, Syracuse University’s only professor of interdisciplinary sciences and dean emerita of The College of Arts and Sciences. “Like other marine fossils, shipwrecks provide clues to the part of our history that lies beyond the shoreline.”

Such was the basis of two recent presentations by Newton—the first at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science & Technology (MOST), which was part of the Technology Alliance of Central New York (TACNY)’s Junior Café Scientifique speaker series; the second, an invitation-only event at SU’s Life Sciences Complex, presented by The SU Humanities Center. Despite inclement weather, both events drew record crowds—a testament to Newton’s national stature and the growing fascination with shipwrecks. Rarely a month goes by that some diving or archaeology magazine doesn’t splash a photo of a sunken galleon across the cover. It's ratings gold, in TV parlance.

“Shipwrecks are not only the stuff of childhood dreams about pirates, sea duels, and sunken treasure, with new technologies that allow us to locate them in almost any body of water, but are also a matter of historic record and science,” says Edward Lee Spence, a pioneer in underwater archaeology, as well as a prolific author, magazine editor, and blogger.  “People are finally seeing shipwrecks as more than a fantasy. That has brought about interest and investment, creating a virtual undersea gold rush that is simultaneously helping advance underwater archaeology and our knowledge of wrecks.”

Newton’s two presentations combined her vast experience in paleontology with a long-standing fascination with shipwrecks. They were also years in the making. Newton was a 16-year-old sophomore at Duke University when she helped her father—John G. Newton, then superintendent of Duke’s marine laboratory and leader of the Monitor discovery team—locate the Union warship in approximately 230 feet of water, off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C.

The expedition faced a major challenge when an American patrol boat, sunk by a German submarine during World War II, was mistaken for the Monitor. “It was then, following this so-called ‘failure,’ that we found the Monitor—something that showed up initially as little more than a small smudge on recorder paper,” says Newton, who was recently honored by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of North Carolina Maritime Museums at a ceremony in Beaufort, N.C. “Remarkably, only 16 of the Monitor’s 62-member crew perished in that 1862 battle with the CSS Virginia. One survivor was a surgeon who later wrote about the experience in The Atlantic Monthly. I was proud to share the stage with his descendants in Beaufort.”  

Like Spence, Newton owes much of her professional development to Harold “Doc” Edgerton, an MIT professor whose inventions included the side-scan sonar, a type of underwater imaging used in conjunction with a microwave-based navigation system. Edgerton’s photography helped confirm the Monitor’s identity, while, almost singlehandedly, jumpstarting the field of underwater archaeology. (Incidentally, the career of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a colleague of John Newton’s, was greatly facilitated by Edgerton.)

Professor Newton and Deborah Douglas, director of collections and curator of science and technology at The MIT Museum, study a model of the R/V "Atlantis," the first "purpose-built" research vessel for oceanography. MIT is home to The Edgerton Center, named for one of Newton's mentors: Harold "Doc" Edgerton.

Professor Newton and Deborah Douglas, director of collections and curator of science and technology at The MIT Museum, study a model of the R/V "Atlantis," the first "purpose-built" research vessel for oceanography. MIT is home to The Edgerton Center, named for one of Newton's mentors: Harold "Doc" Edgerton.

Edgerton’s technology also accelerated the development of a searchable database that Cathryn unveiled in 2009. The database, the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in existence, contains information about some 2,000 ships that have sunk off the North Carolina coast since the 1500s. Much of the information was culled from 5,000 handwritten data cards that she, her father, and other members of the Monitor discovery team have compiled over the decades. A typical card might include the ship’s name, type, and size; its date of sinking; and information about its cargo, passengers, departure point, and intended destination. “Dr. Newton is already a world-renowned scientist, and her database of historical information on shipwrecks provides a wealth of valuable information to the public,”
 Spence says.

TACNY Junior Café Scientifique, a monthly interactive series at the MOST, engages middle school students in the STEM disciplines. Peter Plumley, the MOST's exhibits project manager, has been involved with the series since its inception in 2006. "Cathryn's contribution was, without a doubt, the most spellbinding," says Plumley, also associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at SU. "She had over 80 young students and their parents on the edge of their seats, listening to every detail."

Plumley's wife, Diane G'01, chairs the TACNY Junior Café Scientifique series and is a TACNY board member. "Dr. Newton was the epitome of professionalism and scientific prowess," Diane says. "She unequivocally elicited scientific and human interest from our audience, as evidenced by the stillness of the young learners during her talk and their countless questions and comments at its finish. She is a phenomenal scientist and teacher, and we were beyond thrilled that she spent the morning with us at the MOST."

It’s Newton's fascination with archaeology—“German submarines off the coast of North Carolina, babies born in lifeboats, and people clinging to ice-laden rigging,” she says—that humanizes history. “Once we recognize the thousands of shipwrecks on the ocean floor as the array of fossils they literally are, we can ask—and answer—new questions that transform our understanding of many aspects of science and cultural history,” she told the rapt audience at SU, a week later.

"Cathryn took us all on an engaging and entertaining adventure of scientific discovery and a young woman's self-discovery," says Doug Frank, professor of biology. "She challenged us to grasp the almost mystical power of collaboration and, for evidence, told her own story of how the synergistic efforts of a diverse collection of scholars led to uncovering the Monitor and to the events and people involved in its sinking. ... As chair of the Earth Sciences Department and then dean of The College of Arts and Sciences, she always trumpeted the virtues of interdisciplinary research. Now I understand why."

Cathy Newton and

Whereas the MOST event was presented to a middle school audience, the SU one catered to blue-chip faculty. Organizer Dympna Callaghan says it was one of The SU Humanities Center’s best events. Ever. “Professor Newton has this gift for bringing together the sciences and humanities in a compelling way,” says Callaghan, the William L. Safire Professor of Modern Letters and interim director of The SU Humanities Center. “For instance, she showed us forensic facial reconstructions of two of the Monitor’s crew members. [See above.] She also discussed the ship’s architecture; the political climate of the time; and the fragile state of submerged vessels, in general. … It was an all-too-rare opportunity to engage with not only one of the most renowned scientists in our midst, but also other faculty members in various fields.”

David Reed, an emergency medicine physician at SUNY Upstate Medical University, has done search and rescue in Antarctica as a Navy helicopter pilot. He’s also known for his volunteer work in South Sudan. Of Newton’s lecture, Reed says she extended far beyond a historical narrative of the discovery of the Monitor. “With subtle yet earnest candor, we shared, briefly, those special life moments, 41 years prior, when Cathryn was a bright, young student-scholar and first experienced the timeless thrill of applying scientific methods to a great discovery,” he says. “To a room of seasoned educators, it was a priceless reminder of the joy found in the art and science of inquiry.” 

Christopher DeCorse, professor of anthropology in SU’s Maxwell School, was also in the audience. “One of the challenges of archaeology is to make academic research relevant to wider audiences, while balancing it with the need to keep the work substantive and grounded in academic questions,” he says. “Cathryn did this wonderfully by bridging the excitement of discovery with the wider questions of which the research is part.”

Never mind that underwater research is one of archaeology’s most tantalizing and challenging subfields, adds DeCorse, whose métier includes historical archaeology and general anthropology. “Her presentation was a potent reminder that the logistics of recovery, as well as the preservation of sites and artifacts can be daunting tasks,” he says. 

Cathy Newton speaking to audience

Sanford Sternlicht G’62, professor emeritus and part-time instructor of English, echoes these sentiments. “Cathryn is one of the world’s foremost experts on undersea wrecks, where the relics of millennia of civilizations still await discovery,” says Sternlicht, a former naval officer. “From Spanish galleons to Civil War ironclads to German U-boats, her talk revealed how these wrecks have formed a vast underwater museum."

If the purpose of public speaking is to inform, persuade, and entertain, then Newton has succeeded beyond measure. A study in poise and elocution, she invariably leaves audiences wanting more. Goodwin Cooke, Maxwell’s professor of practice emeritus of international relations, was astonished to learn of her illustrious past. “Her lecture about the Monitor and efforts to bring it to the surface was fascinating. And her discussion of the crew members who perished when the ship went down was dramatic and moving," says Cooke, a former U.S. ambassador. “I hope she’ll tell us more about these exciting explorations.”

Peter Saulson, the Martin A. Pomerantz ’37 Professor of Physics at SU, hopes so, too. He considers Newton his “inspiration,” as a scholar, teacher, and academic leader. “It was clear, from the moment we met in 1991, that I was dealing with a first-rate intellect,” he says.

Since then, the two have had many more encounters—some more formal than others—for the expressed purpose of sharing knowledge. Saulson remembers the time he pressed Newton for a quick tutorial on shale rocks at nearby Clark Reservation State Park. “She spent a half hour helping me understand the basics of how sedimentary rocks form,” says Saulson, who also serves as an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University. “Another time, Cathryn invited me to her office for lunch because she wanted to learn more about cosmology. … With her recent lecture on shipwrecks, I knew that I would learn deeply and broadly about the subject, and that it would be presented with grace and poignancy.”

Newton is now putting the finishing touches on Deep Findings, an ambitious book project that, like her database, spans 500 years of maritime history. Much of it, she says, is set in the deep, offshore waters of the North Carolina coast, known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

As often in Newton’s public lectures, Deep Findings opens with a firsthand account of her discovery of the Monitor. Through stories, rigorous science, and creative insights, she traces the rich and vivid history of underwater archaeology, while placing oceanography in a new, interdisciplinary context. “Whether we’re looking at the Titanic or the Monitor, a shipwreck tells us a lot about how the ocean works,” says Newton, adding that seawater samples taken from around wrecks can provide valuable clues about water temperature, salinity, and pressure. “A wreck in warm, shallow water is just as rich in biological information as one in a cold, deep ocean.”

Cathy Newton speaking to audience

Already, the community is buzzing at the prospect of another Newton book. (Her previous one, Ancient Environments, which she co-authored with veteran geologist Léo Laporte, has been translated into five languages, including Japanese and Portuguese.) Patricia Roylance, an English professor who attended the SU event, admires the crossover appeal of Newton’s work. “What's so impressive about Cathryn is the way that she, as a scientist, connects the story of the USS Monitor to the work and interests of so many humanists,” Roylance says. “She weaves art, history, and her own biography into the tale of the Monitor.” 

English Professor George Saunders G’88, who knows a thing or two about writing books, thinks Newton has a likely hit on her hands. “She’s an incredibly original and invigorating scholar,” he says. “Her freshness of mind and generosity of spirit are evident in everything she does.”

Adds Saulson: “Cathryn embodies everything that is right about The College of Arts and Sciences. It's a place with good values, where people come together to achieve excellence. Her presence makes it so.”

Contact Information

Rob Enslin