Polyarchy in England and France

Living in a world that is putting an ever increasing emphasis on the value of Democracy, it becomes important from the political scientist’s perspective that we have a formula we can use to determine exactly how democratic a country is. By setting out criteria that a country must meet in order to be seen as moving toward Democracy, Robert Dahl has developed just such a formula. The focus of this study will then be to examine Dahl’s formula by looking at how The United Kingdom of Great Britain and France measure up to his criteria. We will begin by first taking a look at the mechanics of Dahl’s formula, then proceed by looking at the governmental structures of These countries, putting them up against Dahl’s litmus test to see both the democratic and not so democratic aspects of their respective governments.

Since most would agree that Great Britain and France are at the very least reasonably democratic, questioning this notion will not only make clear Robert Dahl’s theory, but give us a fresh perspective on what Democracy is, hopefully opening our minds to the idea that even the most seemingly democratic countries will inevitably fall short of the democratic ideal some ways. Dahl, in fact, makes the case that there really is no best form of Democracy for every country, and furthermore, that no country throughout history has ever achieved a perfect Democracy. Because of this, he reserves the term “Democracy” to mean an Ideal and perfect Democracy, while using the term “polyarchy” to describe regimes that have strong democratic tendencies.

What then are Dahl’s basic requirements of polyarchy? When considering

this, it is important to think along the lines of a continuum, with all the regimes of the world falling somewhere inbetween perfect Democracy and an authoritarian system of governance. With this is mind, we can begin to look at some of the basic requirements that must be met if the country is to pass Dahl’s litmus test.

First of all, the most basic criteria that Dahl lays out states that in order to be a polyarchy, the system must allow for participation in government by the citizens, and contestation of the government by the citizens. While these two basic rules form a good foundation by themselves, the are far too vague to generate a good model of a county’s government. How then can we make these two concepts of participation and contestation more concrete? To deal with this question, Dahl lays out three “unimpaired opportunities that all full citizens must retain.” First, he remarks that the people must have the right to formulate preferences. Secondly, they must “have the right to signify those preferences to their fellow citizens and the government by individual and collective action.” And finally, they must “have the right to have their preferences weighed without discrimination by the government because of the content or source of the preference.” (Dahl p.2). He then goes on to enumerate eight guarantees that a government must grant its citizens if these three opportunities are to be met.

In order for citizens to have the opportunity to formulate preferences, Dahl claims that citizens must have the “the freedom to form and join organizations, the freedom of expression, the right to vote, the right of political leaders to compete for support, and the right to alternative sources of information”. For the opportunity to signify those preferences, citizens must have all the five previously mentioned freedoms as well as two more: “eligibility for public office and free, fair elections.” Finally, if citizens are to have their preferences weighed equally in conduct of government, they must have all seven of the above mentioned rights and freedoms, plus, “the institutions that constitute the government must depend on the votes and other expressions of preferences by the citizens.”

Dahl’s criteria for polyarchy then can be summarized as requiring a government that is brought to power in free and fair elections by as large a percentage of the population it will govern as possible. It must be subordinate to a citizenry that has access to non censored information and is free to speak out against the government it elected. With this in mind, let us now continue our study by shifting out focus to the governmental structures of Great Britain and France to see how well they meet this criteria.

Perhaps the most notable thing abut the government of Great Britain is that while it is officially a constitutional monarchy, it has no written Constitution. While it may seem that this would make for a regime that could be oppressive, it has worked fairly well for The United Kingdom. In fact, it has actually made the British system of government more adaptable that it may have been if its constitution was specifically spelled out (Goodgov). The British election system is a single member district plurality with the Conservative and Labor parties being the most influential (Concise Columbia Encyclopedia: Great Britain). The governmental structure is a bit strange in that the Monarchy has been retained in the form of the Royal Family and House of Lords. The Royal Family has retained only a symbolic role in government, and while the House of Lords, consisting of 1185 members still acts as an ultimate court of appeals and may delay and examine legislation, generally speaking, the monarchy has largely been striped of political influence.

Instead, the real driving force behind British government resides in the House of Commons. This parliamentary body consists of the Prime Minister who is elected by a popular vote, a Cabinet, or who is selected by the Prime Minister, and the members of the House of Commons who are elected from their respective districts in “winner take all” elections.

Knowing the basic format of the British system of governance, we can now begin to put it up against Dahl’s criteria for polyarchy. We will start by asking if British citizens are free to “formulate their own preferences.” Generally, it would seem that the answer to this question is yes, but let us look at this question using the five qualifiers that Dahl lays out. (1) Do the people have the right to form and join organizations? While The United Kingdom is officially a two party system, the existence of small parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the fact that people are free to join unions shows us that British citizens are relatively free to form and join organizations. (2) Is there freedom of expression? While British citizens typically choose not to partake in demonstration, they do enjoy, for the most part the freedom of expression. Even in the event of a riot such as in 1911 where two rioters were killed, the British government tends to be careful about protecting this freedom (The People’s Chronology: Human Rights and social Justice. 1911). (3) Do the people have the right to vote? While there are always many factors affecting the issue of suffrage, I think it can be said that generally The United kingdom has been fairly inclusive about who is able to vote. Historically, there has been problems such as an immigration act in 1968 that excluded thousands of Asians in Kenya from official citizenship, but with the downfall of British colonialism, these problems have largely gone away, leaving for the most part, universal suffrage (The People’s Chronology: Population, 1968). (4) Are political leaders free to compete for support? Parties in the United Kingdom are fairly strong, and it is usually them who decides who will run for public office in a certain district. This does not look good from Dahl’s perspective. Technically, the citizenry is free to run for office, but without party backing, it becomes almost impossible to win. However, while the British system does fall short in this area, it is important to remember that we are not holding The United Kingdom to the Democratic ideal, but rather to the expectations of polyarchy which automatically assumes the system will be at the very least slightly undemocratic in some ways. And finally, (5) are the people free to alternative sources of information? The answer to this, I think can best be illustrated by the recent events surrounding the death of Princess Diana. Clearly, if censorship was a problem, the news and tabloids would not have had nearly as much publishing freedom as they did during this traumatic time. Therefore, I believe it is safe to say that British citizens are very free to alternative sources of information.

This brings us to the question of weather or not British citizens “have the right to signify those preferences to their fellow citizens by individual and collective action (Dahl p. 2).” As mentioned above, for a citizenry to have this right, they must have all five of the above mentioned qualifiers in addition to two more. (6) Is the common citizen eligible to run for public office? Again, we run into the same problem with this question as we ran into with question four. The political parties have become such a force in Great Britain that it is virtually impossible to win without their support. Technically, however, the average citizen is eligible to run for office, albeit, if they wish to win, they must follow tradition by climbing up the party ladder. And (7), are there free and fair elections? Largely, the answer to this question is yes. There really is no problem with the government tampering with election results, and except for the trouble with the parties controlling who runs for office, the elections are free.

Lastly, the question remains if these preferences are “weighed equally in the conduct of government with no discrimination because of the content or source of the preference. ” Again, for this to be the case, all seven of the above mentioned qualifiers must be present, plus the policy making institutions must depend on “votes and other expressions of preference (Dahl p. 3).” In large part, this is the case. Both the Prime Minister and the members of the House of Commons are popularly elected in free, fair elections, and as a check on the Prime Minister’s powers, the members of the House of Commons may call for a vote of censure, and if the Prime Minister doesn’t get a majority, he must resign. There is, however a significant hindrance to this qualifier. While the citizens of Northern Ireland must live under British rule, they don’t feel that they are represented, and in large part do not participate in the governmental system. Because of this, the elected officials aren’t really accountable to the people in Northern Ireland This does Present a problem from the standpoint of representation.

By looking at Great Britain from the perspective of Dahl’s three requirements and their eight respective qualifiers, we see that indeed, this country definitely does not meet the criteria for a pure Democracy. It falls short most notably in the areas of who may run for office with a reasonable chance of winning, and in the fact that the people living in Northern Ireland are not well represented. Another strike against the United kingdom is the fact that the Prime Minister may declare a state of emergency, suspending human rights. It is, however clear that The United Kingdom does meet most of the criteria by a fairly large margin, and falls well inside the confines of polyarchy

To put this into perspective, let us now look at France’ s government using the same formula. Unlike The United kingdom, France has been relatively unstable throughout history. Because it was so bloody and no real defined Democracy emerged, the French Revolution is thought of by many to be “incomplete.” On average, France has had a new government implemented every eighteen years, and it wasn’t until 1958 that the current government (the Fifth Republic) emerged (Hollifield and Ross p. 43).

France is a mix between a Parliamentary and Presidential system. This is because historically, the legislature had been to powerful and it was thought that if a President was brought into the system and made the dominant government official, it would serve as a check to the power of the legislature. The President serves terms of seven years and can be re-elected. He is the only popularly elected official and is responsible for appointing the Prime Minister and the “government”, or Council of Ministers. His powers include being able to devolve the National Assembly and Council of Ministers, propose referendums, and force Parliament to re-consider legislation. Unofficially, he also may use his party ties to control Parliament and get them to dismiss Cabinet Ministers. The Parliament is a legislative, bicameral body that has the power to debate legislation, as well as to use a vote of censure, ousting the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

How well then does France measure up to these three requirements? Are French citizens free to formulate preferences? Again, let us determine this by looking at the five qualifiers that Dahl lays out. (1) Are French citizens free to “form and join organizations”? Well, like The United Kingdom, France has a number of minor parties, and unions. Also, French citizens may join interest groups. This demonstrates that indeed, they are free to form and join organizations. (2) Do the French have freedom of expression? The answer to this question is a resounding yes! In fact, it is not uncommon to see them partaking in political street demonstrations. (3) Do they have the right to vote? While much of the government is appointed by the President, the executive himself and the members of Parliament are in fact elected, so the answer to this question is yes as well. However, historically, France has passed laws such as the one in 1850 which discriminated against radical workers who “tended to be migratory,” by requiring that people live in one place for three years in order to vote (The People’s Chronology: Human Rights and Social Justice, 1850). (4) Do political leaders have the right to compete for support? Yes. In fact, because France uses an electoral system of proportional representation, small parties have more opportunity to compete with the larger parties than in Great Britain. (And finally (5) do the French have access to alternate sources of information? While there are certainly areas where the French government holds information back from the citizens (all governments do to a certain extent), the French tend to be fairly liberal, and thus put a high priority on being open to alternative sources of information. There is also a wide range of political ideals in France which shows us that the French government has, in general, been fairly good about not censoring information.

It seems that France has done fairly well with Dahl’s first requirement; let us now see if French citizens are free to signify those preferences. As before, if this next requirement is to be met, the first five qualifiers must be true along with (6) eligibility for public office and (7) free, fair elections. Eligibility for public office does poses a bit of a problem for polyarchy. In France, it is decided at an early age if a child is to go to college or not, and without a college education, a person can not be prepared for a career in public office. If the opportunity for an education is taken away from a person, that person is, for all intensive purposes, not allowed to run for public office. France does, however, do better with question seven, and elections are, for the most part free and fair.

Finally, this leaves us with the last of Dahl’s three requirements: Are the citizen’s preferences “weighed equally in the conduct of the government, without discrimination because of the content or source of the preference?” This leaves us with the eighth and final qualifier: Do the governmental institutions responsible for making policy depend on votes and other expression of preference? Again, the answer to this question leaves us in the gray area. The President, most definitely is directly accountable to the people as he is publicly elected, but the Cabinet and Council of Ministers also play in important role in government and they are merely appointed by the President. Furthermore, while the Parliament is an elected body, the fact that France uses proportional representation means that the members who run for office are chosen by their respective parties, and thus are more subordinate to those parties than the people who elected them.

Like the United Kingdom, France is far from a perfect Democracy. In fact, it seems to me that the areas where France falls short are a great deal more important to polyarchy than those where the United Kingdom is lacking. Most importantly is the fact that a large percentage of the French population may not so much as hope to run for public office. While it may do wonders for their educational system to allow only those who prove themselves at an early age to attend college, it is, without a doubt a remarkably important undemocratic feature of their social system, and frankly it worries me. Nonetheless, in large part, France does meet most of the criteria that Dahl lays out, and while in my opinion it is less of a polyarchy than Great Britain, it still seems to fall within the confines of polyarchy.

In this study, we have looked at Dahl’s criteria for polyarchy, and applied this criteria to both The United Kingdom and France, comparing the results to see the areas where they hold with Dahl’s formula for polyarchy as well as those where they break from it. Finally, I have briefly described why I have concluded that France is further from complete polyarchy on our continuum than Great Britain. Hopefully, this study has succeeded in taking the abstract ideas of Robert Dahl, and by applying them to two familiar countries, made them seem a little more concrete.

Works Cited

Dahl, Robert. Polyarchy; Participation and opposition. New Haven: Yale University

Press, 1995

Hollifield, James and Ross, George. Searching for the new France. New York:

Routledge, 1991

Publishing Staff. “CD-ROM: Microsoft Bookshelf 1996. Concise Columbia Encyclopedia

Licensed by: Columbia University Press, 1885

Publishing Staff. “The current constitution of Great Britain” Goodgov on the web.

Plymouth State College Internet. 13 October. 1997. Available:


Publishing Staff. “CD-ROM: Microsoft Bookshelf 1996 The People’s Chronology.

Licensed by: Holt and Company, 1994

© Cliff R. Pearson

14, October 1997

All rights reserved

Essay on Calvin & Hobbes

I’ve been a huge Calvin and Hobbes fan since the comic strip began in 1985, so I was thrilled to find that they have finally bundled up every single strip that was ever published into one gigantic set of three canvas-bound books called “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes”. This weekend I picked it up, and as I was thumbing through the three, seriously hefty volumes, it got me thinking about this essay I wrote about the strip a few years ago.

“Calvin and Hobbes” is a comic strip about the imaginative world of a six year old boy named Calvin, and his stuffed tiger named Hobbes, who is not only very much alive within Calvin’s mind, but also his best friend. The strip was created by Bill Watterson, and first published on November 18, 1985. Almost immediately after its introduction, the strip became wildly popular, and it held that popularity until December 31, 1995, when the final “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon was sent to the printing press.

In 1995, “Calvin and Hobbes” could be found in over 2,300 publications worldwide, and there are more than 18 million published collections in print. This popularity resulted in an incredible following of people who identified with, and cared about the characters. For instance: one series which ran for only a week, involved a situation in which a big dog knocked Calvin down, and ran off with Hobbes. The strip’s readers were more upset by this than Watterson had expected, and they began to write letters asking that Hobbes be brought back safe. The intense interest shown by the strip’s readers shocked Watterson, and he began to realize how important his creation had become to people. He describes reading the comics as “a comforting little ritual to see our favorite characters for a few seconds over coffee in the morning. We care about them when they’re in trouble, and we count on them to look at life with a slightly amusing twist.” This would certainly appear to be the case considering the concern people expressed over the safety of Hobbes.

How was it that Watterson was able to spark such emotion within his readers? What makes “Calvin and Hobbes” so appealing to such a broad spectrum of people

These questions are not easy ones to answer; the mechanisms that make characters believable and likable are diverse and complex. However, by breaking “Calvin and Hobbes” down, and looking at some of the major aspects of the cartoon, we can begin to gain an insight into why the cartoon was able to find a place in so many reader’s hearts.

For this analysis of “Calvin and Hobbes,” we will look at the main characters of the strip, the ways they react to each other, the ways in which the reader reacts to them, and some of the most notable themes and topics of the cartoon. The cast consists of five major personalities, who interact with each other in ways that are usually humorous, but often very deep, and emotional. While conflict is nothing rare in the world of “Calvin and Hobbes,” relationships between the characters are almost always positive. There may be a practical joke here and there, but it’s done in the same way we joke with our close friends or loved ones as a form of affection. This, I believe is a large part of the cartoon’s appeal. People have always been drawn conflict, and when readers see the positive way the strip deals with argument, it becomes harmlessly funny, and people find themselves drawn to it.

The artwork for weekday strips is a slightly sketchy style of drawing, done in black ink, while the Sunday strips employ larger frames, and are done in color. Watterson says that in the early stages of the strip, he used “a cartoony, flat look, in which Calvin’s fantasies looked more realistic than reality.” Later on, however, the artwork became more three-dimensional, which allowed the characters to be drawn from different perspectives. One thing that is particularly notable about the artwork, is how effectively the characters convey emotion. It’s easy to see in their expressions what they are thinking, and the text is written in a such a way that we get a good feel for what’s going on. Loud noises, screaming, and most any exclamations are written in big, bold letters and are often surrounded by a jagged dialog balloon. The calmer language, on the other hand is written in small, uniform letters, which usually appears in a smoothly rounded caption. The mouths are remarkably large, particularly on the children, which gives the reader a feel for how much effort the kids put into getting their points across, as well as helps to show some of the things that are important to them.

The strip’s star character, is of course, Calvin. Calvin is a bratty, six year old boy named after a prominent sixteenth century theologian who believed in pre destination. Calvin spends his days using his imagination to create new worlds and fantasies which lead him to adventure and fun. Since Calvin spends much of the time in the world of his own imagination, it usually doesn’t occur to him that the rules of the “real” world apply to him, and he often ends up getting himself into all kinds of trouble. While Calvin is indeed hyper active and difficult to deal with, he is very imaginative, and tends to ask questions about life’s larger issues, such as human nature or the meaning of life. Watterson says that through Calvin, he is able to explore the things he is thinking about in more depth, and remarks that while Calvin is nothing like him as a child, the character helps him stay in touch with his own immaturity, providing him with a way to “sort through his own life and understand it.” This intellectual curiosity is done in a humorous, but thought provoking way, and I believe it adds to the appeal of the strip, because it prompts people to ponder philosophical questions that might not otherwise come to mind.

With Hobbes, we find ourselves with a somewhat strange situation. To everyone but Calvin, he is merely a stuffed tiger that Calvin drags with him everywhere he goes. To Calvin, on the other hand, Hobbes is not only alive and kicking, but his best friend as well. This leads to an interesting twist within the world of “Calvin and Hobbes,” as none of the other characters are able to grasp why Calvin is so attached to his toy tiger. Hobbes gets his name from the seventeenth philosopher Thomas Hobbes who had a particularly dim view of human nature. This is fitting since Hobbes often shows a quiet, witty, sarcastic attitude as he reacts to Calvin’s outrageous escapades. None the less, Hobbes is Calvin’s best friend, and we can tell by watching his patients, gentle body language, and by reading his thoughtful questions and remarks, that he has a genuine love for Calvin. Watterson says that he created Hobbes, including everything he looks for in a best friend.

Calvin’s parents are a good depiction of a couple trying to deal with a child like him. They often seem sarcastic, and at their wit’s end, but this is because we only really see them while they are reacting to Calvin. In the early strips, they were criticized for being unloving and cruel. I disagree with these accusations; In fact, by closely looking at their actions, Calvin’s parents appear to love him a great deal. His father shows a surprising amount of trust and tolerance, by doing such things as letting Calvin use the binoculars, or going along with his elaborate stories. We can even see his father’s love in the jokes he plays on Calvin, such as teasing him about not getting any Christmas presents. Calvin’s relationship with his father exemplifies of the harmless practical joking that people seem drawn to.

Calvin’s Mother shows her love in a different way. She displays a kind, motherly quality by doing such things as sticking up for Calvin when his father teases him, or bringing his lunch out to the sand box so Calvin won’t have to stop playing. I think readers are drawn to the funny, but positive way Calvin’s parents deal with him, and any reader who is a parent will probably find that they can relate to them on many levels.

Susie Derkins is a quiet, smart, earnest girl, about Calvin’s age. Calvin’s relationship with Susie is pretty much what would be expected from a six year old boy dealing with a girl, which leads to an interesting conflict. Watterson says that he suspects Calvin has a crush on her, but shows it by intentionally acting outrageous. Susie is a little “put off” by this outrageous behavior, which prompts Calvin to act even more outrageous. This relationship is fun for the reader because it gives off the same awkward feeling that most of us went through as a child when we had a crush on someone. Like the others, this relationship is positive, and it deals with the concept of love, which is important, and heart-warming to readers.

These characters all react to each other in ways that are easily identified with and funny, while at the same time, dealing with larger philosophical issues and themes. The goal of any news paper comic strip is to appeal to as many people as possible, so it is important to stay away from topics that may offend people. “Calvin and Hobbes” does this not by completely avoiding issues that people feel strongly about, but by mentioning them, and letting the readers find the answers for themselves. For instance, in one cartoon, Calvin is lying in bed, wondering why man was put on earth. Hobbes rolls over, gives a sarcastic smile and says “tiger food.” This cartoon deals with creation, which can be a hot topic, but instead of trying to answer the question for us, we are left to make our own decisions about it.

Many “Calvin and Hobbes” strips deal with issues of reality, and when taken with the sometimes complex language, it becomes clear that the cartoon is working on many different levels. A good example of this, is the subjectivity of Hobbes’ reality. When he is drawn from the perspective characters other than Calvin, he appears as a stuffed tiger. When drawn from Calvin’s perspective, however, he is animated and alive. Even then, however, it is not always this simple. As we can see in one strip were Hobbes is dizzy from having been washed and then put in the dryer, the issue of the tiger’s reality is sometimes blurred even for Calvin. Another example of this blurring of reality is a cartoon in which Calvin is imagining that he has traveled to another world and is being approached by an alien monster. As the monster nears, we see that it is holding a sandwich and a drink. When the monster finally gets to Calvin, we see that it is really his mother, bringing his lunch to him. This undefined reality allows us to relate to the strip on any level we chose, and I believe it is a major reason for the strip’s success.

Bill Watterson seems to have struck the right mix with “Calvin and Hobbes.” He’s created a world that is inhabited by believable, likable characters, who deal with a rich variety of issues in a convincing and humorous way. I think that inside all of us, we can see a little of each character, and this makes the strip fun and easy to identify with. As we read, we become involved in the lives and thoughts of the characters, and because of the sometimes complex topics covered, we are able to grow from the cartoon. In the final “Calvin and Hobbes” strip, the world is covered with snow, and Hobbes is carrying a toboggan. Calvin remarks “It’s a magical world Hobbes ol’ buddy? Lets go exploring!” The two friends then slide away from us on their toboggan. I hazard a guess that most “Calvin and Hobbes” fans felt a lump in their throat that day; I know I did. For me, however, it wasn’t a sad feeling. I was left with the feeling that Calvin and Hobbes were still active behind the scenes, and that the two friends have only started to explore. This feeling indicates to me that Watterson was able to do with his creation what many cartoonists spend their entire lives trying to accomplish. He was able to create an entire world in which “Calvin and Hobbes” could exist.

Cartoon Examples.
All images the property of Bill Watterson.
The First Calvin & Hobbes Cartoon >
The Last Calvin & Hobbes Cartoon >

Clearing up misconceptions about diving historical wrecks

In the world of archeology there are no digs more difficult than those lying beneath watery depths. With land sites archaeologists are sometimes faced with extremely difficult challenges such as such as the environment in Ozette Washington where they found themselves digging through sticky mud and trying to preserve spongy artifacts. Or the Inca site of Machu Picchu where the air is so thin that it’s difficult to breathe, and the sun so intense that it burns the skin almost immediately. No matter how difficult the dry land dig, however, some basic human needs exist in this environment that are simply not there underwater. The most obvious is air and gravity, but there are literally a myriad of other logistical challenges that become apparent when a team goes to plan an underwater dig.

Digging underwater has in fact, proven so difficult that most archaeologists find more reasons to avoid these sites than to dig them. When an underwater site is taken on the team will sometimes resort to extremely complex and costly ends to make it a dry site. They may, for instance, attempt to divert or drain the water from a shallow site, effectively making it a dry land dig, avoiding the challenges involved with a submerged site. Techniques like these are not cheap, and require massive amounts of time and planning so the fact that they are done in the first place tells us that if at all possible any archaeological project is best dug on on dry land. This gives us a hint as to how complex and challenging an underwater dig must be.

Why is it so difficult? Shouldn’t a team just be able to put on some scuba gear and head on down to the site? After all, the bottom of the ocean is silty and soft; shouldn’t that make it even easier to dig? In this study, I will talk about some of the less obvious problems involved in underwater archeology; the ones that people might not think of right away like physiological and mobility issues. I will start by talking about shallow water digging which is usually the simplest, then more on the more complex problems with digging deeper sites in the 100 to 500 feet deep range. I’ll then move on to the most complex challenges with underwater digs that lye in very deep water like the Titanic or the Yorktown. These sites are tens of thousands of feet deep and if it’s not amazing enough that they’ve been found in the first place, the obstacles involved in actually digging them are mind boggling. Finally, I’ll conclude by talking a little about some of the political and moral issues involved in underwater archeology and explain why it is important that these sites are responsibly dug.

In almost all cases, projects that involve digging in shallow water (15-50 feet) are the simplest. They render only slight physiological complexities and divers are usually able to stay down much longer than on deeper dives. This is, however, not to say that they aren’t without their challenges. How for instance, does an archeologist remove the silt covering the artifacts without causing the water around him to become so clouded with sediment that he can’t even see? One might think that you could just brush the silt aside and the water would carry it away but it doesn’t. Once the visibility has been ruined it can take several hours for it to settle again. Underwater archaeologists have had to invent techniques and tools that literally suck up silt, leaving behind the covered artifacts. These giant underwater vacuum cleaners are usually powered by the thrust generated by the boat’s propeller, and the silt is forced by the engine away from the site, while the artifacts are filtered out by a screen on the front of the vacuum hose. (Martin)

Of course if the site is at the bottom of a river or in an area of the ocean where there is a current, the silt is simply washed away by the moving water, but how does the team keep themselves and the artifacts from being washed away as well? I can say from my own experience that fighting against a strong current gets to be exhausting and frustrating after only a few minuets. It is important also to remember that in a current the simple action of the water moving over the sediment will kick it up and ruin the visibility without any help from the divers. When we take this into account, it is no surprise that the sites with the least visibility tend to be the ones with the most current. Archaeologists have gone so far as to build structures around a shallow site that divert the current. This technique does not actually emerge the site, but rather acts as a shield against the current much as a car’s windshield diverts the strong wind from the driver’s face. This allows for a calm area over the site where the visibility will be improved and the archaeologists won’t have to tether themselves to a solid object or swim against the current. (Martin)

Finally there is the concern of air consumption. If the water is extremely cold, a diver must plan for his dive taking in to account that his bottom time will be shorter because his body has to work harder to keep warm, thus needs more oxygen. However, even under ideal conditions, using divers with the most developed breath control, a team can’t really expect a diver to get more than about an hour out of a single 80 cubic foot tank. More tanks can be added to increase bottom time, but it is important to remember that the more tanks a diver must carry, the more difficult it is for him to move around and the more quickly he will grow tired. It is exhausting enough to work in an underwater environment where every movement is met with the resistance of water; the effect is only compounded when more gear is strapped on. It has to be expected then that a diver can only work four or five hours as day and not the eight or ten he would be able to in a dry land environment, thus the project either has to employ many more people, or it will take much longer than a conventional dig.

When it comes to SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) some unique problems begin to pop up when the diver gets to depths of much more than thirty feet and they become the primary concern at depths in excess of one hundred feet. Since very few shipwrecks lie in shallow water and the cost of diving on an extremely deep wreck is often too great, most underwater archeology in done in water in water ranging in depth from 100 to 500 feet. As any experienced scuba diver will attest to, these are the depths where the danger in scuba becomes most apparent, but they are also the depths where you will find the most interesting things, especially if you are into wrecks. So why is it more dangerous to dive on sites at these depths than those in the fifteen to thirty foot range? One might think that it would be because of the risk of equipment failure or the diver running out of air, but in reality, these are of very little concern. The real danger at these depths come from the way a diver’s body reacts to the pressure from the water above him.

The most notorious of these physiological complications is the bends or DCI (decompression illness). Most people have heard of this, but many who don’t dive don’t understand exactly what it is. Whenever a diver goes underwater, he is under the pressure of the water above him. This is why your ears hurt when you dive to the bottom of a swimming pool. At around thirty feet, the pressure is twice what it is at sea level and it grows greater as the diver descends. As the depth increases and the pressure increases each breath the diver takes consists of air that is denser because of the outside pressure. This means that at thirty feet, the diver is breathing twice as much air as he is breathing at sea level. As we know, our bodies absorb the gasses from the air we breathe into our bloodstream and since normal air is almost all nitrogen, our blood is absorbing more nitrogen than anything else. (McCallum)

Take for instance a diver at sixty feet. With each breath he is absorbing roughly three times the nitrogen of a person on the beach. This doesn’t become a problem however until there is a change in pressure. After all, everyone has a good deal of dissolved nitrogen in their blood at any given point, but we need not worry about it because we know the pressure around us is not likely to change much. With the diver, however, this is not the case. If he has been working at a site lying in 200 feet of water four twenty minuets, he’s been absorbing outrageous amounts of nitrogen into his bloodstream and if he were to suddenly decide to come to the surface, the dissolved nitrogen, like any gas in its liquid form under pressure, would turn back into its gaseous state as the pressure diminished.

As we know, having gas bubbles in our bloodstream is extremely dangerous, and in some cases it can even lead to death, so those planning underwater excavations at these depths must take great care and planning to avoid this dangerous problem. Many divers use, for instance, dive computers which will calculate how much time a diver spent at a given depth with his rate of air consumption to determine the nitrogen levels in his blood and tell him when he must come up and at what depths he must make timed decompression stops to outgas nitrogen. These computers allow divers maximum flexibility in their work because they can dive right up to their physiological limits, yielding the best bottom time. (TDI)

If the site is under water ranging in depth from sixty to one hundred feet, the team may chose to use a special gas mixture called NITROX to yield even more bottom time than can be achieved with normal air. Historically, this gas has been used by the navy and research teams, but in recent years, it has fallen into the mainstream of casual scuba. NITROX doesn’t actually introduce any unfamiliar gasses into the compressed air, but rather increases the oxygen level, replacing some of the nitrogen. This means that if a diver is breathing a 40/60 (40% oxygen and 60% nitrogen) blend, he is dissolving roughly twenty five percent less nitrogen into his bloodstream, allowing him to stay on the site longer. (C.N.P Program)

Why then don’t underwater archaeologists simply breathe pure oxygen and eliminate the nitrogen completely from the equation? The answer is that under pressure, oxygen levels in a divers blood can become too high causing the diver to convulse. As I mentioned above, the deeper a diver goes, the more actual gas he breaths, and at even a very shallow depth pure oxygen will cause blood-oxygen levels to become so great that they are toxic to the diver. NITROX, then is a very customizable gas and a team will choose the best mix for the depth of the site. If, for instance, the site is in eighty feet of water, the team might use a NITROX blend of 40% which would become toxic if the diver was to descend to eighty five, but yields the best bottom times at eighty because of the reduced nitrogen levels. The trouble with NITROX is that it is only beneficial for relatively shallow dives because you quickly reach a point of diminishing return as you go deeper. If a team needs to reach a depth below two hundred feet, even the air we are breathing now has oxygen levels that are too high and would become toxic. (C.N.P Program) How then do teams carry on projects at say three hundred feet?

The answer: use a gas called TRIMIX by partially replacing both the nitrogen and oxygen with helium. This type of diving is highly theoretical and is usually reserved only for the Navy, research teams and highly trained technical divers. However, if the financial and technical resources are available, archeological teams may sometimes use it to conduct their excavations. Since these dives usually involve very long decompression stops on the way back up, and since the gas mixtures consumed at the bottom are often so thin in oxygen that they wouldn’t even support life at sea level, it is not uncommon for as many as eight individual tanks to be used by each diver on a single dive. (TDI) This is extremely expensive and the diver’s bottom time is usually limited to only a few minuets, so the work must be conducted quickly and sometimes with haste, since a high element of danger hangs over each diver’s head. The team usually needs to have a recompression, or hyperbaric chamber on location to deal with any instances of DCI, as well as many diving teams since a single diver may only be able to make one or two.

Again, diving with TRIMIX is extremely expensive. Depending on the blend a single tank of TRIMIX can cost as much as $80, and each diver needs a separate regulator for each blend of gas he breathes. (TDI) Hyperbaric chambers often have to be leased from the government or hospitals and the staff that runs them costs in the realm of two hundred dollars per hour. Each diver is highly trained and faces a strong element of danger, so they don’t come cheap, and the team usually needs a full fledged research vessel just to carry all the gear. These dives are also extremely dangerous. DCI is not an uncommon occurrence, and since the depths they are dealing with are so great, any slight error in planning leads to disastrous consequences. It is not surprising then that only the most glamorous projects at these depths are taken on.

Even TRIMIX reaches a point of diminishing return at about six hundred feet (although at least one person has made it past one thousand breathing it). Thus, for very deep wrecks like the Yorktown, another solution must be found. Without a tremendous budget, raw determination and the latest sonar technology, Pieces of history like the Yorktown and the Titanic can’t even be found, let alone dug. Bob Ballard, above all others, has pioneered this technology, and exemplified the strong will it takes to discover wrecks at these astronomical depths. On his deepest discovery, the Yorktown, he combined a vast array of technological innovations and sheer luck to discover and make the three mile trip down to the ship’s decks. (National Geographic)

So where does an archaeologists begin to take on a project of this magnitude? Well, as it would logically follow, the first challenge is actually finding the wreck. On his search for the Yorktown, Ballard used mostly eyewitness accounts and charts from World War II to outline a one hundred square mile section of midway which he searched by using a massive research vessel to pull a navy sonar module in a criss-cross pattern. As he covered the ocean floor, he took note of anything unusual that came up on the sonar screen and charted them as possible sites of the ship. Once he had the possibilities narrowed down, he attempted to send an unmanned Navy probe into the depths to try and get a first hand look at what he thought was sure to be the Yorktown. He didn’t get his chance this time, however, since four hundred feet from the ocean floor, the probe imploded and needed serious repair. Navy technicians spent days repairing the crippled probe and it was only after the second dive that Ballard was able to confirm that what he had found was indeed the Yorktown. (National Geographic)

Needless to say, not every archeologist has access to a research vessel and cutting edge Navy sonar and submarine technology, so clearly this type of research is left to those like Ballard with the highest budgets. But the cost of a project like this only begins with finding the site. Once the wreck is found, deep diving research subs and costly camera equipment must be obtained to properly map and chart the site. If the decision is made to bring artifacts to the surface it can take years and costly chemicals to properly preserve them. For these reasons, most sites at these depths will never be explored. Tragically, there are simply not enough institutions willing to foot the bill for such expensive research.

Since we can’t have a shipwreck to explore without a wrecked ship, and since the action of a ship wrecking tends to kill people, archaeologists, have to be sensitive to the idea that in most cases these sites should be treated as graveyards. Some archaeologists like Ballard take great care not to disturb the wrecks he finds. He refuses to bring any artifacts at all to the surface and focuses instead on mapping and charting the sites. This “take only pictures, leave only bubbles” mentality shows great respect for those who have perished and their families. The archeologist is still able to discover and learn key facts about the history of the ship or the way it went down but the wreck is left intact.

All too often, however, another team will come in after the serious archaeologists have left and pillage the site. The most notorious of these cases is the Titanic where Ballard, as usual, went to great effort not to disturb the anything, only to have a French team come in later and recover artifacts so they could sell them for a profit. This kind of treasure hunting really is a tragedy, not only because it shows no respect for the people who have died, but because it causes governments to be cautious about letting anyone conduct research in their waters. Countries have had so many artifacts stolen from them in this way that they often assume any archeologist is a treasure hunter and refuse to give research permits to anyone at all.
If our base of knowledge is to continue to grow with respect to maritime history and ship construction, it is absolutely essential that archaeologists are allowed to continue exploring both the very shallow and the very deep wrecks alike. For this to happen, universities and research institutions must be willing to finance these projects, and there must be some world wide provisions put in place to eliminate the trend of treasure hunting so that countries will be able to trust this delicate research to those most qualified. Bob Ballard stands out as a shining example of a good scientist with his priorities firmly in place. He has respect for both the memories of those who died in the wreck as well as the countries who’s waters hold these fascinating sites. Anyone planning an underwater dig would do well to follow his lead.

Photos from some of my TRIMIX wreck dives >
Photos from various other TRIMIX and NITROX dives >


Martin, Dean (1995).
Archaeology underwater: The NAS guide to principles and practices
London: Archetype

McCallum, Paul (1970).
The Scuba Diving Handbook
VA: Betterway

Pearson, Cliff (1998).
Cliff’s NITROX Project (computer program)
Pearson: Pearson

Publishing Staff (1999).
National Geographic Explorer: The search for the Yorktown
Film Archive: National Geographic
Available: http://nationalgeographic.com/

Publishing Staff (1999). TDI Website.
Available: http://www.tdiusa.com/