Is the Titanic archaeology? A century since her loss on 15th April 1912 we examine her status as a monument to a great migration, and learn how recent survey has revolutionised knowledge of the wreck, as James Delgado told Matthew Symonds.
It was a little after 2.18am ship’s time that the RMS Titanic‘s back broke. The stricken liner had been sinking for two and a half hours when her stern suddenly lifted clear of the ocean. Some 1,500 passengers and crew still trapped on board rose with it. But Titanic‘s hull could not survive this extraordinary strain. As the deck reached an angle of around 45 °, the hull sheared in two at its weakest point with a terrible metallic shriek. For a moment or two the keel may have held the ship fast. Then the submerged front of the Titanic tore free. Briefly the stern steadied, before the weight of the engines made it rear up violently. For a minute or two it bobbed in theAtlantic like a cork. Then it pirouetted and plunged those still clinging to its railings into -2 °C waters. A ship celebrated as the largest moving object ever made by man had been tragically cut down to size.
Iceberg, right ahead
The writer Walter Lord, who reignited popular interest in the Titanic with his 1955 bestseller A Night to Remember, characterised the disaster as an ‘unsinkable subject’. Yet a century after the loss of the Titanic it is easy to believe that the topic is exhausted. We know why, when and where the ship foundered. We know how misplaced confidence in her safety features saw her dubbed ‘unsinkable’, or at least ‘practically unsinkable.’ Above all we know how a fatal combination of hubris and outdated legislation led to the Titanic charging headlong into an ice field, on a moonless night, with only enough lifeboats for half those on board. All of this is documented by survivor testimony, and official British and US inquiries. What more could there be to know? Yet recent survey has revealed that there is still much the wreck can tell us.
The very moment that the Titanic slipped back from the realm of history into archaeology brought proof that the accepted narrative was flawed. On the morning of 1st September 1985 the grainy image of a boiler lying at a depth of almost two and a half miles below sea level appeared on the monitor of the remote-control exploration device Argo. The Titanic had been found. She lay 13 miles from the coordinates given in her increasingly frantic distress signals. Now, an expedition led by Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel discovered that one of the few slivers of luck that April morning was the course of the ship Carpathiasteaming to the rescue led it, by chance, to the drifting lifeboats.
Ballard and Michel’s other big discovery awaited careful analysis of the Argo photographs. Operating in pitch-black depths, it was only once the mosaic of images was painstakingly pieced together that it became clear the bow and stern sections of the ship lay 1,970 feet apart , and facing in opposite directions. Until then it was assumed Titanic had sunk intact. That was the finding of the two inquiries, with the scream of rending metal explained as the sound of boilers exploding as they were engulfed by freezing seawater. Those survivors who claimed the ship had broken up were ignored. One, Jack Thayer, even had a sketch drawn on the day of the tragedy. Based on his recollections, it showed the severed stern turning on its axis, a detail now known to be true.
This is an extract, but the full feature is available in CA 265