Maritime detective studies remains of a famous Revolutionary War ship
Story by Grace A. Lazzara
Photo by KC Kratt, MFA ’84
As a child, Michael Tuttle loved the water and all things nautical. As an adult, he studied colonial-era maritime history. Today, Tuttle combines these interests in leading an underwater archaeological team recovering a vital piece of American history.
Tuttle directs a project excavating and documenting the wreck of the HMS Serapis, which was lost off Madagascar in 1781. Serapis’s role in the American Revolution is compelling: During a 1779 battle, John Paul Jones, captain of the Bonhomme Richard, famously said, “I have not yet begun to fight,” and took Serapis from the British, giving fresh hope to the colonial upstarts.
After graduating from UB with a bachelor’s degree in history, Tuttle’s unusual combination of interests led him to the University of Maine, which had a rich maritime tradition, for a master’s degree in American history. There he met maritime archaeologist Dick Swete, whose lifelong goal was for all of John Paul Jones’ ships to be found and archaeologically investigated. Tuttle graduated with another master’s degree from the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Then, he began working for one of the few U.S. companies focused on maritime archaeology, often running into his earlier mentor, Swete.
In 1999, when the wreck of Bonhomme Richard was reported discovered, Swete set out to find Serapis and asked Tuttle to join him. And that same year, Swete found the site of the Serapis wreck. During Tuttle’s second trip to Madagascar, Swete tragically died from malaria, and the project faced an uncertain future. Over the next few years, Tuttle helped reestablish the project and accepted the position of director. Each day, he and his field crew boated to the Serapis site a half mile off shore carrying sophisticated technology to help dive teams measure and document the site and locate artifacts to conserve.
The goals of the excavation are to develop a display for the Malagasy museum in Madagascar; work with Malagasy University students in preserving their history; and update the worldwide archaeological community. Tuttle’s dedication is personal: “Dick was a mentor and brought me along. If nothing more happened with Serapis, his goal would be in vain.”
A documentary film Tuttle is coproducing might help the effort. A short on the project won Best Documentary Film at the 2001 Indie Memphis Film Festival, and the filmmaking continues in an attempt to generate public support for the project’s completion.
Tuttle believes the Serapis Project touches every American: “It connects us with our past,” he says. Tuttle asserts Jones’ battle was a milestone, “like Yorktown, Valley Forge, or Bunker Hill. But this battle was at sea, and the only tangible artifact is this wreck.”