Category Archives: Biography

Wracks künden fur versunkenen Kulturen

Article from Thüringische Landeszeitung, “Wracks künden von versunkenen Kulturen”  about nautical archaeology at Marburg and the Lahn River.


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My Titanic Connection

In April 1912, my maternal grandmother, Laura Odina Olsen, was emigrating from Trondheim, Norway to America. For this, she had purchased a third class ticket on RMS Titanic.

Laura Odina Olsen, Trondheim, Norway

Third class, or steerage, was where immigrants usually booked passage on the Trans-Atlantic ships. For many of those on the ill-fated Titanic, it was a death sentence. It was common practice at the time to gate-off the steerage sections from the higher class section of ships. So when Titanic began to sink, many in steerage found the ways locked, and the people were forced to find unlocked passages through the ship. It is not apparently true that the crew deliberately locked people in, as books and films would have us believe. Many steerage passengers died as they simply refused to leave their belongings behind.

My grandmother was, however, particularly fortunate. She had booked passage out of Norway to England where she was to board Titanic for the trip to New York. Then something happened: She missed the boat!

As a boy my mother related this story to me a number of times, Laura having died three weeks before I was born. I guess it is one of the formative stories of my life, along with my father’s WWII service in the Norwegian Merchant Marine, his father’s whaling days, and my maternal grandfather’s (Laura’s husband Carl Olsen, aka Karl Olsson, from Copenhagen) days in the US Coast Guard and as a crew member on J.P. Morgan’s yacht. Yet, it was never explained how or why she missed Titanic.

It turns out the story is a bit more complicated than Laura being left on the quayside in Southampton, as I had always imagined. The tale is clarified from the Ellis Island records: It turns out she never made it to England. The boat she missed was the one out of Norway. Naturally, she then missed the connection for Titanic. Apparently traveling from Trondheim to Christiana (now Oslo) she arrived too late. She booked passage on the steamship Helige Olav instead, a direct sailing to New York, and arrived in America the day after Titanic sank.

One wonders what happened to the Titanic ticket- it must have been cashed in to pay for the new ticket on Helige Olav. Otherwise what an heirloom that would be!

Laura and Carl Olsen, New York USA

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Obituary for Gerhard Kapitän in English

Translated from the DEGUWA German-language obituary:

Born 23 April 1924 in Meissen, Germany, Gerhard Kapitän, after serving in the Second World War, studied graphic design and sculpture at the Dresden Academy of Art before moving to Humboldt University in Berlin where he studied archaeology from 1950 to 1953. In the following years he worked as a freelancer for various cultural organizations in Berlin, and from 1958 to 1961 he belonged to the Research Group for Underwater Archaeology of the German Academy of Sciences, where he worked particularly on the Kemladen, the “robber barons’ castles” of the Mecklenburg Lakes. In 1958 he began a collaboration with the patron and amateur underwater researcher Pier Nicola Gargallo in southeast Sicily.

The construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 brought Kapitän to a sharp turning point in his life, as it did to so many people.  Staying abroad, he decided not to return to East Berlin, but to settle in Syracuse, Sicily with the uncertainties of the future that awaited him there. He soon devoted himself intensively with the challenges of building scientific researches underwater in Sicily, making ​​important pioneering work. He earned his living as a representative of a company for nautical instruments, but since 1965 he operated as an independent scholar researching underwater archaeology and the maritime techniques of the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean area. The foci of his activities were in the waters of Southern Italy, Sicily, the Lipari Islands, Malta and Greece. His very extensive studies – more than a hundred scientific papers! –  resulted in the outstanding work on the Marzamemi wreck, which he carried out with the Sicilian Soprintendenza ai Beni Culturali under its director Luigi Bernabo Brea. Here, he discovered significant marble components for an early Christian church of the 6th Century. He worked out as well highly specialized studies for the classification of underwater finds, for example of transport amphorae, lead probes and anchors, and created both an extensive collection of material for  Mediterranean underwater archaeology as well as its own specialist library, which is an important tool for researchers and students in this and related disciplines.

For all that he had no available public funds but he bore all expenses himself, which forced him into a very grueling life. The rewards were a constant scientific dialogue with his counted colleagues and longtime friends that included Bernabo Brea and the recently deceased Honor Frost. Especially, he had at heart the young colleagues of the next generation. He spent much time with them and gave them an inexhaustible source of knowledge and encouragement.

Beginning in 1995 with DEGUWA, Kapitän continued the work begun in the sixties on the Secca di Ognina at Syracuse. Even though he no longer dived, he was often at the dig on board, and there was no sherd that he did not handle himself and archaeologically classify. His curiosity never waned. Among the Greek and Roman transport amphorae, he had an almost personal relationship, and so it is at least a small act of righteousness that the late Roman Amphora types will forever bear his name.

He was particularly interested in the question of the beginnings of boat building and seafaring, which led him to ethnological studies, and from 1985 to 2004 he worked on the documentation and preservation of the traditional watercraft of Sri Lanka. Despite declining health, he visited the island regularly for years and saw the establishment there in 1992 of a maritime museum for the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, he had also learned that this was destroyed by the great tsunami of Christmas 2004. Emerging as the last major fruit of his maritime-anthropological work, and on the basis of the research by G. Grainge with the collaboration of S. Devendra, there was published in 2009 the second volume of the “NAS Monograph Series” entitled “Records of Traditional Watercraft from South and West Sri Lanka.” With this work Kapitän has created a monument to the ancient, traditional vessels of that region, which are now largely displaced by motorized fiberglass boats.

With Gerhard Kapitän nautical and underwater archeology loses one of its greatest pioneers and DEGUWA loses a good, an irreplaceable friend.

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