Nicholas C. Fleming, Apollonia on My Mind: The Memoir of a Paraplegic Ocean Scientist. Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2021. ISBN: 9789464260328, 34 black and white illustrations, 145 colour illustrations. Hardcover:€150, paperback: €65, epub: €20, free online access.
by Lev Cosijns
The author of the book, Nicholas Flemming, is one of the pioneers of underwater archaeology, and was at the forefront of a range of different spheres of research into the unknown depths of the sea. Due to these wide interests, and a thoroughly fascinating life, his memoir sheds light on little known aspects of the advancement of underwater research, as well as on his journey in life. However, in order for the reader to fully understand his passion for the sea and diving, Flemming takes care to go back to the root of this relationship, by first describing his large-scale survey of the partially submerged city of Apollonia on the Libyan coast, and his compulsory military service in the Special Boat Service (SBS).
The first chapter, on his first encounter with underwater archaeology and the survey conducted in Apollonia in 1958, is utterly fascinating. During this period of life, he was a student reading for Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, where he was a founding member of the Cambridge University Underwater Exploration Group (CUUEG). The author first heard of Apollonia while he was meeting up with some of the members of the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) London Branch, where one of them mentioned an underwater city on the shore of the village Marsa Susa, east of Benghazi. His fascination with the city, alongside the existence of a survey conducted by Captain F.W. Beechey of the Royal Navy in 1827, encouraged the young Flemming to assemble a team from the University of Cambridge to conduct an underwater survey of the city of Apollonia. Their aim was to re-survey the above water features, as well as locate and record the extensive submerged remains. By comparing their updated survey with the one conducted in 1827, the team aimed to measure and examine the changes in sea level over time. This was one of the first underwater surveys conducted in archaeology, and the problems the teams encountered, as well as the way they were overcome, the equipment and methods used are captivating and provide an insight to the newly born field of maritime archaeology.
The following chapter returns to the root of his love for diving by describing his introduction to it in the form of his compulsory military service in the Special Boat Service of the British Royal Navy. This chapter, although less informative in terms of maritime archaeology, highlights the changes in the technology of diving and the stark differences between military and civilian diving. It is followed by a chapter on Flemming’s childhood and family life, with numerous adventurous escapades and entertaining stories, most notable of which was a midnight climb of a 250m radio mast (the highest artificial structure in the UK at the time) by Flemming and his friend.
Similar to the first three chapters, the rest of the chapters are arranged as certain themes, rather than chronologically, which structure his research and life: underwater cities, submerged Ice Age caverns, the limits to ocean exploitation, ocean climate change, prehistoric settlements on the continental shelf, ocean law, and safe scientific diving. In addition, while each chapter explores one aspect of the author’s career, the narrative fashion with various historical references and anecdotes serve to put the reader in the time period in which the events of the book occurred.
The first of these chapters on the author’s career discuss his examination of under-water caves for evidence of human habitation. Numerous of the caves described are located in Gibraltar, such as Vladi’s Reef where the author dived in the 60s with Waldemar Illing (known as Vladi and after whom the reef is named after until this day), and where two Roman anchor stocks were discovered. Other dives were conducted, such as in Marseille which was overrun with demobilised French Foreign Legion troops and where, in 1991, a submerged cavern covered with hand imprints and rock paintings from 27,000 to 19,000 years ago was discovered.
During chapter 5, Nicholas Flemming is mostly on land as he conducted research for the Commercial Oceanology Study Group, commissioned by a group of companies headed by Unilever. During this stage of the author’s career, he was tasked with reviewing the resources of the ocean and the potential environmental impact of their exploitation. While most of his predictions were correct (there was potential for satellite navigation systems at sea), some were not (an overestimation in the growth of offshore production of tin, sulphur, diamonds and gold) and there were some developments in the field which were unanticipated (fibre-optic trans-oceanic cables were installed later than expected).
Chapter 6 returns to the title of the book, with an explanation of the several decades where the author describes his obsession with mapping underwater cities after his successful expedition to Apollonia in the late 1950s. In his exploration of underwater cities, Flemming travelled extensively, from the shores of Spain and Italy to the coasts of Israel, Turkey and Syria, providing plenty of inspiration for people who wish to see these beautiful underwater settlements themselves. This is followed by a chapter which is of a more sombre note, as it recounts the accident which lead to his disability in 1969, and the various ways he coped with and challenged it. It is a beautifully told and moving account: Flemming relearned to swim and snorkel, and resumed his academic life, going on business and research trips by plane, vehicle, or ship. His success of relearning to dive with scuba (as can be seen on the cover of the book) led him to run a course for disabled soldiers in Israel.
This is followed by two chapters which are different in tone as they discuss various aspects of Flemming’s life where he had to battle against bureaucracy and take part in various important meetings. The first of these highlights the changes in the laws, protocols and regulations for scuba divers. It is especially eye opening for British divers, as Flemming reveals the enormous push-back he and the BSAC received from health-and-safety bureaucracy in Britain regarding the sensible regulation of scuba diving for shallow underwater work, which was only resolved in the 90s. Chapter 9 discusses the law of the sea and how technology to forecast via the Global Ocean Observing System was developed. In it, he describes his experience as an advisor to the UK Mission to the UN while participating in the Economic and Technical Working Group of the new committee. These last two chapters, somehow, made bureaucracy interesting and understandable.
Like chapter 4, chapter 10 returns to prehistoric maritime archaeology, but instead of finding evidence for prehistoric remains in underwater caves, the author sets out to find evidence for human activity on the sea floor. One of these places is at Palvopetri off the Peloponnese peninsula, where he discovered a series of ancient settlements. The last chapter, similar to the first one, returns to Apollonia and so provides a beautiful bookend on Flemming’s love of underwater research, as he was fortunate enough to return to Apollonia with his family in the early 2000s. It is tinged with sadness as coastal erosion had changed the underwater city of Apollonia, with numerous structures he had located in the 50s ceasing to exist.
Nicholas Flemming’s career is varied, with his list of contributions to the field including changes in sea-level and plate tectonics, as well as to the methodology, safety and politics of underwater archaeology and underwater research. Although not an academic book, this book provides insights and a wealth of information on the state of past research and provides important and relevant citations if one were interested in exploring certain matters further. Sprinkled with a generous helping of humour, maps, photos and an extensive, this book is a wonderful addition to any maritime archaeology, or underwater science, enthusiast who wants to supplement his reading with an educational but entertaining look at the different avenues of underwater research in the past 70 years.
Lev Cosijns is a 2020 Rhodes scholar who holds two masters degrees from the University of Oxford, the first in archaeological science and the second which focused on the use of GIS in archaeology. Currently, she and a colleague are researching the reasons for the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire and the settlement changes which occurred in the eastern Mediterranean in the 6th to the 8th centuries CE.