Serena Cant

As a maritime specialist the idea of being marooned on a desert island has perhaps occurred to me more frequently than most. It is astonishing how many of the world’s narratives involve shipwreck from Noah’s Ark to the Life of Pi. It’s probably my worst nightmare (and yes, I have literally had nightmares about being marooned on an island where the only available food is bananas, which I absolutely loathe with a passion!). As a child I was always drawn to shipwreck tales, and I suppose I could plunder those for practical tips on how to survive, but let’s jettison Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, and The Black Stallion for now and see how archaeology could help me make sense of my new environment.

It might, after all, be an unparalleled opportunity: I might get lucky and find evidence of some abandoned and unrecorded civilisation in my search for shelter. Languages rather than archaeology were my first love, although I’ve always been drawn to the historical aspects of the study of language, So here goes, with what strikes me as also a personal archaeology, peeling back the layers of my self:

1. So if there were evidence of some material civilisation, I’d have to search for and try to decode any outlying textual fragments. Andrew Robinson’s Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts (2009) would be a fantastic ‘how to’ guide. It showcases successful decipherments – Egyptian hieroglyphs, Linear B – and presents the state of knowledge on partially deciphered or completely undeciphered scripts around the world, including the rongorongo script of Easter Island. It would still keep my brain active trying to solve existing problems even if I found no new codes to crack on the island.


2. As an Eng Lit student at university I was drawn to archaeology through studying Old English and I recall being blown away by the idea that literature can flesh out the past, and vice versa. I can still recall the moment I was introduced to Beowulf and its Analogues (Garmonsway and Simpson, with Archaeology and Beowulf, Hilda Ellis Davidson, 1971). I suppose that might have been the germ of my eventual specialism as a documentary researcher fleshing out shipwreck archaeology from contemporary accounts.

3. On that note I have to include Daniel Defoe’s The Storm of 1704 in which he had the genius idea of making a public appeal for accounts of the ‘Great Storm’ of 1703 and interweaving them together in a narrative – an early form of crowdsourced material. It is one of our key sources for a number of protected wrecks, while it preserves accounts of shipwrecks found nowhere else in any surviving form of documentation, which we might one day locate – an excellent predictor of potential archaeology. How it must have lodged in the mind of the man who eventually wrote Robinson Crusoe . . .

4. I could pick quite a number of maritime archaeology volumes but I think I’d have to go for the wonderfully named and equally fabulously illustrated L’histoire engloutie ou l’archéologie sous-marine by Jean-Yves Blot (1995) which is also available in English translation as part of the New Horizons series (second-hand only). It was my first introduction to the world of maritime archaeology in 1996, and a good representative of my library – I’m a huge fan of the French-language Gallimard Découvertes series, of which this forms part – generally beautifully written texts that treat the reader with just the right balance of accessibility and intelligence.

5. To give myself hope that I’d get off the island again, (despite the dangers which might discourage me with what I know about wrecks!), I’d have to read Barry Cunliffe’s astonishing Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek (2001) which brings a little-known tale of a 4th century BC Greek citizen in Marseille to life, integrating literary and archaeological evidence to create a real-life tale to stand alongside the Iliad, Odyssey or Aeneid.. If he could do it, so can I!

6. Archaeology can be defined in many ways as making visible that which is invisible or forgotten, and I love the growing trend to mine art history to capture states of the past (such as the sea levels in Venice or England’s coastal landscape in a recent Historic England-funded project) or transient phenomena such as the optical effects produced by volcanic eruptions in the works of Turner. Though much of Delft is as it was in Vermeer’s time, Anthony Bailey’s A View of Delft (2002) shows how Vermeer preserves through his art records of structures destroyed in his own lifetime and works no longer extant but known to have existed and hanging on the walls of his ladies playing music. He was truly the master of the moment suspended in time between one note of the music and the next.

7. I have a major interest in the archaeology of the intangible: surprisingly, shipwrecks are very good markers of things that exist otherwise only on paper or in thin air (e.g. the cessation of routes during wartime). In a similar vein I’ve championed under-represented heritages throughout my career – they speak to me as a woman and a disabled person. Most hearing people will never have thought of this, but until the advent of film it was impossible for sign language to leave much trace in material culture, which is why Nora Ellen Groce’s Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language (1985) is so fascinating. Ironically it was kick-started by some oral history testimony, excavating memories of Martha’s Vineyard, where, because of the high incidence of hereditary deafness in the island population, sign language and English co-existed until the early 20th century. Had it not been recorded virtually at the last minute, this unique heritage would have been utterly lost and would have left no archaeological trace whatsoever.

8. I’m also excited by ‘above-ground’ archaeologies, such as those of the Second World War, which are tangible in stone, either as blast damage or in the odd 1950s or 60s buildings inserted between two older houses, particularly in London. I was delighted to uncover a copy of When Hitler Passed this Way published by the Evening Post in 1946, with ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of buildings damaged and destroyed. It, too, is a reminder of the start of my career with what was then the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England and its National Buildings Record, set up in anticipation of just such devastation. I think the general reader often thinks of archaeology as something ‘hidden’ and ‘ancient’ and ‘apart’, and it is often all of those things, but archaeology can be visible, recent, and familiar, too: hidden in plain sight.


9. In that early part of my career I was fortunate enough to catalogue the collections of ‘church archaeologist’ F E Howard, who recorded and illustrated medieval church furnishings in great detail. I have a battered but much-treasured personal second edition 1927 copy of his English Church Woodwork which remains a standard work on the subject with beautiful sepia photographs and line drawings with a fabulous frontispiece.

10. I’ll close with something I haven’t yet got round to reading but which sums up everything for me. Alone on my desert island I’ll have time to savour and appreciate everything from the well-chosen artworks to the historical details of Durham Cathedral: History, Fabric and Culture (2015). Art, architecture, archaeology – all on England’s favourite building! On a personal note, it also happens to be mine – I got married there . . . it might make me somewhat homesick, but it would yield hours of pleasure until I got picked up by that passing steamer.


Serena Cant studied English Literature at the University of Durham before an M Phil in Anglo-Saxon literature, art and archaeology. She writes and lectures widely on maritime archaeology, art history, and access issues in museums, and is never happier than when talking about shipwrecks in art in sign language! As well as a full-time career in the historic environment sector, latterly with Historic England as a specialist documentary researcher in the field of maritime archaeology, she specialises in lecturing in museums and galleries in the medium of BSL to deaf audiences. She is the author of Vermeer and His World (2009) and England’s Shipwreck Heritage: from logboats to U-boats (2014), and blogs for Historic England at