Bob Ballard is an explorer with an insatiable desire to make discoveries in the depth of the ocean. With submersibles and a host of underwater technology, he has found many sites of significance. If you’ve ever heard his name before, it’s probably due to his most famous discovery: He is the person who found the Titanic on the ocean floor seventy-three years after it sank to the bottom.
Recently, Ian and I have been watching a series on Netflix called Alien Deep. In each episode, Bob Ballard and his crew set off to make discoveries of various kinds, either to find items in the dark ocean or to uncover new information about the earth itself.
Last night, we watched Bob Ballard and his team find ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea. This was astounding. First, they discovered items from a Byzantine Era shipwreck in the 6th century CE. Then, they found a remarkably well preserved shipwreck from 4,000 years ago. The location, along with the depth and consistency of the water, was just right for preservation. The actual wood from the ship still remained! Incredible.
But the most astonishing discovery was that they found human bones within this shipwreck from 4,000 years ago. In all his years of exploring, Bob Ballard has never found remnants of a person. Here was the human connection. Here were the remains from a human person who had died — likely, a member the crew who has never been seen again until this moment.
This connects to one of the most powerful aspects of Bob Ballard’s work. He and his crew find ways to bridge time and bring dignity to the lives of real human beings — people who experienced terror and trauma in their last moments, whose bodies entered a frigid, dark, unseen place. By discovering their artifacts, and in this astonishing case, by discovering their very bones, Bob Ballard invites us to remember and contemplate their lives. This certainly does not redeem their tragedies, but perhaps in entering them, it ensures that these human beings are not forgotten.
Once when I was in seminary, author Timothy B. Tyson was a special guest lecturer. I remember him speaking the words of Ezekiel, recalling the vision of the valley of dry bones. “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel had asked his audience.
Timothy Tyson began to speak of the transatlantic slave trade and utter horrors of enslavement on those ships, bodies disregarded, chained, and stacked on top of one another. He reminded us that human beings with Black bodies were thrown overboard for uprising, or for sickness. In a haunting way, Timothy Tyson spoke of their bones too, their remains on the ocean floor: “Can these bones live?” he asked us, his audience.
Perhaps that question ought to linger.
Can these bones live?
We cannot redeem the tragedies of these bodies, these human lives either. But perhaps in entering their history and taking their legacy seriously, we will ensure they are not forgotten. And, perhaps with intention, we will cease reenacting such traumas generation after generation.