Mike Tuttle, BA ’90
Maritime detective studies remains of a famous Revolutionary War ship
By Grace A. Lazzara
Photo by KC Kratt, MFA ’84
Fate and geography brought Michael Tuttle to maritime archeology. Growing up in Western New York on the Niagara River, he swam, fished and sailed his way through childhood. And he had long been fascinated by nautical lore, reading Treasure Island at least 10 times.
Tuttle received his bachelor’s degree in history from UB in 1990, but spent all his free time on the water. Finally, a gentle parental suggestion to “do what you really want to do” led him to the University of Maine, where he earned a master’s degree in American history. Perhaps more important, at the university he met maritime archeologist Dick Swete, who invited Tuttle on his first archeological dive. Subsequent field study cemented Tuttle’s desire to pursue a career in maritime archeology. He furthered his knowledge with another master’s of literature of maritime studies, from the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies at University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
Once home, he joined one of the few U.S. companies focused on maritime archeology, Pan-American Consultants. There his projects included finding a 19th-century vessel in Boston Harbor and investigating numerous wrecks around New York City. As well, consultant Tuttle’s professional travels often found him crossing paths with his earlier mentor, Dick Swete, whose lifelong goal was for all Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones’s ships to be found and archeologically investigated.
Jones’s most famous achievement came during a 1779 battle. As captain of the Bonhomme Richard, Jones famously said, “I have not yet begun to fight” and took the HMS Serapis from the British, giving the upstart colonials a much-needed psychological boost. The 1999 reported discovery of the Bonhomme wreck prompted Swete to set out to find Serapis, lost off the coast of Madagascar in 1781. He asked Tuttle to join him on his search.
A year later, Tuttle journeyed again to Madagascar to train Malagasy students to be archeological divers, define the Serapis site perimeter and establish the groundwork for a conservation lab and museum exhibits. Tragically, after only a few site dives, Swete died from an acute attack of malaria. Deprived of its founder’s relationships with the Malagasy government, the Serapis Project faced an uncertain future.
Over the next few years, Tuttle was instrumental in reestablishing the undertaking, and accepted the position of director, succeeding his late mentor. Today, Tuttle says, his American field crew works on “the other side of the world”—in actuality off the shore of Madagascar’s Ile Ste. Marie—to excavate Serapis. Each morning, they haul to the site sophisticated technology that helps dive teams measure and document the site and locate artifacts they’ll bring to the surface and conserve. Their work depends on the elements: Tides high enough to launch their boat signal the start of the day, while fog can scuttle their plans to dive.
The goals of the Serapis Project are clear: One is to develop a museum display in Madagascar, which would be “the first such project in Malagasy water,” says Tuttle. The team is also working with Madagascar’s University of Antananarivo to involve its students in preserving their own history. Another goal is to report back to the worldwide archeological community. “We hope to do excellent excavations,” Tuttle notes, “but we have to keep records of what we bring up and where we find it, because we’re changing the site.”
The project’s final goal is partly Tuttle’s personal mission: “Dick was a mentor and brought me along. If nothing more happened with Serapis, his goal would be in vain. He found it, but something more has to be done.”
A documentary film that Tuttle is coproducing might help the effort. Filmmaker Prichard Smith used footage taken of Swete’s first two Madagascar visits to produce a short on Swete’s career and the Serapis Project, which won Best Documentary Film at the Indie Memphis Film Festival in 2001. The filmmaking continues in an effort to create public interest in, and support for, the project’s completion.
For Tuttle, the Serapis Project touches every American: “It connects us with our past,” he says. “John Paul Jones winning the battle with the Bonhomme Richard gave Americans encouragement. It didn’t change anything tactically; the British captain successfully protected his ships.” Nonetheless, Tuttle asserts, the 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.”
Tuttle’s next mountain: Completing his doctorate in American colonial maritime history at Penn State. He’s focusing his studies on naval maritime communities, especially of American vessels. “Maritime communities were not as black and white as those on land,” he says. “They were fluid communities where people created their own identities.” John Paul Jones, for example, was part of a Franco-American naval squadron that even included a British citizen.
Perhaps more essential, Tuttle believes, is that “everyone in North and South America has a ship somewhere in their past. But people don’t consider that aspect of their personal history. I want to help raise awareness of our maritime traditions, so we can see our bond to the sea. And I want people to get excited about this history. These are the issues that energize me.”
To find out more, visit www.serapisproject.org.