Neil Cunningham Dobson
Principal Marine Archaeologist
Principal Marine Archaeologist Neil Cunningham Dobson was a favorite on Discovery Channel’s Treasure Quest series. Known by Odyssey fans as the “People’s Arch”, Dobson has been with the company since 2001. Aside from his passion to share shipwreck history with the broader public, he has an eclectic mix of interests and talents!
How did you become interested in underwater archaeology?
At school my best subject was history, but I wanted to see the world so I joined the British
Merchant Navy and served my apprenticeship as a deck officer. I took up diving and then got my Commercial Diving certification. I knew then that I could combine my love of history with diving to explore and document shipwrecks.
Where did you go to school to become an archaeologist?
I had a very successful career in the Merchant Navy, in the offshore oil industry on semi-submersible and jack-up oil rigs and then as an offshore marine survival instructor/examiner. I then decided I wanted to pursue my true passion and become a marine archaeologist. My local university, St. Andrews (yes – the same university where Prince William met Princess Kate!) offered a masters program in marine archaeology. I completed my Masters (MLitt) in Maritime Studies with a distinction for my portfolio work.
How did you earn the nickname “The People’s Arch”?
I got this nickname from my Odyssey shipmates while working on the SS Republic shipwreck. I am very fond of this nickname. My most important goal is to share the stories revealed by the artifacts and the remains of the ship with the world – not just with other archaeologists. I try to paint a captivating picture of the ship and the people who sailed on her, how they lived and what was important in their lives, in order to show how these discoveries impact our lives today. Hence The People’s Arch!
What are your responsibilities as the Principal Marine Archaeologist?
I am responsible for all things archaeological. I observe and direct the work of the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) on every dive when we survey, investigate and excavate shipwrecks. The ROV is my archaeological eyes and hands on the shipwreck site. I also have the responsibility of ensuring that all artifacts recovered are documented, photographed and receive first-aid conservation until I can land them ashore and hand them over to the conservator. I also have to ensure that all the necessary data from the site is collected for the writing and publishing of various papers, reports and conference presentations. I never tire of exploring shipwrecks. Every time we dive, who knows what we will see or discover. I do think that I have the best job in the world!
Tell us about the recently published OME Paper that you co-authored: “A Late 17th-Century Armed Merchant Vessel in the Western Approaches (Site 35F)”
This new paper presents the archaeological investigation of what may be a Royal Africa Company merchant vessel operating in the mid-to-late 1600s. This was determined from the study of the site as well as the artifacts recovered, including manilla bracelets, ivory tusks, and a wooden folding rule, the earliest such example found on a shipwreck. The site also revealed 36 cannon and quite a few ivory tusks. We recovered and studied one of the tusks before returning it to the sea floor. If our theory on the identity of 35F is correct, it is the Westernmost example of a West African trader, the only example of this date known off the UK, and the first Royal Africa Company shipwreck identified worldwide. Click here to read A Late 17th-Century Armed Merchant Vessel in the Western Approaches (Site 35F)
What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen while exploring shipwrecks?
Wow, this is a tough question. I have looked at hundreds of shipwrecks from all periods of history and I have seen many strange things underwater. All shipwrecks are interesting to me. I would say that surveying my first German U-boat was fascinating and a boyhood dream come true. Exploring the HMS Victory site was amazing because all those bronze cannon make a wonderfully interesting site to study. The most intriguing object for me was a lead ingot from a site in the western Mediterranean. It was in the shape of a moccasin sandal or leather shoe. Someone had impressed their footprint in the sand and filled it with molten lead. I still wonder what the purpose of this was and who that person may have been?
What is your fondest memory aboard the Odyssey Explorer?
All my trips on the Odyssey Explorer are memorable and I hope to have many more!!! I remember observing on the SS Republic wreck site a large shark circle the ROV with its back arched ready to attack as we were recovering artifacts. Working with the various producers and film crew that have produced documentaries about Odyssey over the years has been fun; I have learned a lot about TV and how they compress time to tell a story. The fondest moments are when all the crew is out ashore enjoying a meal and a well deserved beer. I have the privilege of working with some of the most talented shipwreck exploration professionals in the world and along with the ship’s captains and crew they are my second family.
What is it like to be the person who first sees artifacts that have been lost for long periods of time?
It is really an honor and privilege to discover and handle artifacts for the first time. After all, they played an important role in a past life or were part of a ship’s history and typically have a great story to tell. I always wonder about the person who may have held the object before it was lost at the bottom of the sea.
What type of activities do you do aboard the ship when you’re not working?
Archaeology is a way of life, even after overseeing a 12-hour dive I still have work to do. But when I do have free time I like to spend it in the gym (my name for my bunk) and reading books.
What are your hobbies or interests when you are on shore?
I have a busy home life in St Andrews, Scotland, my home town. I make the most of the time I have with my two energetic young sons, and I am very involved with my local community. I have just retired from serving 23 years as a member of the St. Andrews Coastguard Rescue Team. I am a Trustee of St. Andrews Harbour Trust and their archaeological officer. I also serve as a Royal Yachting Association VHF/GMDSS instructor/examiner and the National Boat Handling Co-ordinator for the Sub Aqua Association. My hobbies are varied and include sport diving, beachcombing, sword fighting, and learning to play the didgeridoo. I also enjoy antique collecting, art, DIY home improvements, simple magic tricks and comedy, as well as cooking and sampling real ale, fine wine and good food.
Who was your role model growing up?
My late mother and father were my true role models. Growing up I read and learned about my seafaring Cunningham family ancestors who were sea captains, lifeboat coxswains, whalers, and fishermen and also served in the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy. As an archaeologist my role model is Odel Blundel, the late 19th early 20th century diving monk. He was a pioneer like myself, and never gave up.