Dr. Lisa Briggs, The British Museum

Interviewd by Professor Kung Pengcheng 

Prof. Kung: Could you introduce your research area and your interests? 

Dr. Briggs: I am an underwater archaeologists and archaeological scientist. That means that I both excavate archaeological sites around the world, and also study artefacts collected from these sites through scientific methods. My work primarily focuses on shipwrecks and other underwater archaeological sites, but I also work on terrestrial archaeological sites (on land). My scientific research looks at a wide variety of ‘biomolecules’ which include DNA, lipids, and the stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. These biomolecules are often trapped inside of ancient artefacts such as ceramics, bone, and ancient organic materials like waterlogged grapes, olives, or archaeological resins. My research uses different methods of extraction to pull these biomolecules out of the artefacts so that we can study them. What really interests me is ancient trade, and the movement of goods around the world in the past. The questions I seek to answer include the following: why were certain products and goods placed on ships in the ancient world? How we these products and goods selected, and what caused the demand for these goods? What did they cost? Where were they produced and where were they heading?

Prof. Kung: You use DNA and lipid analysis to study ancient artefacts from shipwrecks. What can we learn about the history and culture of past civilisations with this method?

Dr. Briggs: Underwater archaeological sites offer a much better method of preservation than archaeological sites on land. On shipwreck sites we often find perfectly preserved organic material such as grape seeds, or olive stones. My research into the ancient DNA from underwater archaeological sites uses cutting edge technology to extract, sequence and analyse the DNA from organic materials found on such shipwreck sites. Once recovered, we can compare this DNA to the DNA extracted, sequenced and analysed from other grapes that are alive today. This way, we can establish what kind of genetic relationship there is between the varietals of grapes that people used in the ancient world to make wine, or simply just to eat, and the type of varietals used to make wine today in wine-making regions of the world such as Italy, France, and Spain. We already know that there is an interesting genetic relationship between very ancient grapes in Croatia and some varietals of grape grown to make wine it Italy today, such as the grape known as Primitivo. Olives have a similar history in the Mediterranean, in that they were transported all over the Mediterranean region and were a very important resource, fuel source, and food item in the ancient world. By studying the genetic patterns of the these organic remains, we can start to chart their course around the world.

Prof. Kung:
You have studied shipwrecks from various periods, including, a Venetian shipwreck from the 16th century, a Phoenician shipwreck from the 7th century, and a Mazatos shipwreck from 500 B.C. E. Could you share with us a story about the history of a shipwreck that you find particularly interesting?  

Dr. Briggs:
On a stormy morning in 1583, the Gagliana Grossa, a merchant ship from Venice, was bound for Constantinople when it collided with a rocky uninhabited island in Croatia, known locally as Gnalič. A veritable treasure ship, the boat carried jewels, precious cloth, expensive dyes, medicine, and – most importantly – custom crafted chandeliers and window glass for the harem of the Sultan. Enemies with the Ottoman Turks for years, the Venetians put aside their differences when the chance arose to make a profit from selling their luxury goods to the enemy. When word reached Venice that this treasure ship had sunk, the insurance company was furious, demanding that the humiliated captain make every effort to salvage the treasure. Despite terrifying storms and monstrous waves, several important treasure chests were recovered from the wreck only a few months after the sinking. Almost 500 years later, underwater archaeologists have recovered a staggering collection of artifacts from the seafloor, attesting to both the wealth and grandeur of Venice, as well as the expensive tastes of the Sultan. A silk brocade was recovered from this wreck which matches to the exact fabric worn by a girl in a Caravaggio painting. Glass from Venice litters the seafloor surrounding this wreck, as well as thousands of glass beads. Pigments also formed a very important part of the cargo, including a sparkling red pigment called cinnabar and a yellow pigment called orpiment.

Prof. Kung:
You have done both archaeological and terrestrial field work. That sounds very exciting! Could you share with us your experiences on a project that you enjoyed in particular? 

Dr. Briggs:
The Minoan civilization, like the Maya of Central America, disappeared from history under mysterious circumstances.  Masters of the Mediterranean Sea, this island empire was inextricably linked with the world of ships and maritime trade. But remains of these ancient ships have never been found… until now. For the first time in history, underwater archaeologists may have uncovered the remains of a 4,000-year-old shipwreck at Pseira, Crete. This discovery could change what we know about the Minoan civilization forever. Is this indeed the only Minoan shipwreck ever found?  What can this wreck tell us about the abrupt fall of one of the ancient world’s greatest naval powers? I was sent as part of the team of divers and underwater archaeologists to excavate this site. It was so incredible, and beautiful! Crete is physically beautiful, with a dramatic and rocky coastline. The sea is very clear and the water is warm at the surface, but very cold deep underwater. Every day we dived down to the shipwreck sites, gently excavated very ancient artefacts, recovered some artefacts, and studied and analysed the artefacts that we recovered.

This project was very enjoyable as we were studying a type of shipwreck that had never previously been found. This made the work very exciting. In addition, I was working with a very important underwater archaeologist from Greece, named Elpida Hajidaki. This was an experience I will never forget.

Prof. Kung:
Currently you are working as a researcher at the British Museum, and before you were working as a researcher at the University of Oxford. What is your role at the British museum? How is working at the British museum different from working as a researcher at a university? Which artefacts at the British museum would you like to research and why?     

Dr. Briggs:
My role at the British Museum is as a Research Assistant in Molecular Analysis. This means that I am part of the Scientific Research Department. Working at the Musuem is a bit different than working for Oxford. Here at the Museum, we study artefacts and biomolecules constantly, with a greater focus on our scientific research. Within the University environment, there is a greater focus on writing pieces for publication.

One artefact that I study in the ‘Actium Prow.’ In 31 BCE a naval battle in Actium, Greece decided the future of the known world. Cleopatra VII, the most famous woman in history, faced off against Octavian, the nephew of Julius Caesar. This was not just a battle for supremacy or independence for Egypt, it was a battle of East versus West, with Cleopatra representing the Greek-speaking Eastern side of world first conquered by Alexander the Great, and Octavian fighting for the western stoicism of his predecessors, and their Latin values.

The Actium Prow is an artifact that was recovered from the scene of the battle of Actium, now housed in the British Museum. I analyse this artifact in order to learn more about naval battles, ship construction, and ultimately to learn how the powerful armies of Cleopatra, the most powerful woman in the world, were defeated by the much smaller force of Octavian.