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David Gibbins' "A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks" is also a history of the world in 270 pages, which is why, as you might imagine, the book is jam-packed with information — and why, as Gibbins explains, it is not the history, but a history.

What Gibbins, a maritime archaeologist who has explored some of these shipwrecks, is trying to convey is "the immediacy with the past that wreck evidence can provide." As far back as the sea traders of prehistory, the wrecks "provide vital new information — often about the economic underpinnings of that world — but are also a stimulus to the imagination, giving a lens through which we can see those 'higher' achievements afresh and put them in a wider historical context."

Thus, the 1992 discovery of a boat in Dover leads to reflections on seafaring, woodworking, trade, agriculture and technology in Bronze Age England — along with descriptions of the science and craft of extracting, reassembling and dating the remains of the boat and assessing its place in the migration of prehistoric people.

The exploration of a wreck off the headland of Uluburun, near the southwestern tip of Turkey, reveals artifacts of Mycenaean origin, evoking the world of the "Iliad," as well as, from Egypt, "a gold scarab with hieroglyphics that secures a date for the wreck in the final quarter of the fourteenth century BC, at the very apex of Bronze Age civilization."

Joining a 1998 expedition to excavate a wreck off the Aegean coast of Turkey, Gibbins draws on pictorial and literary evidence — in ancient Greek vase paintings, for instance, and Plato's "Dialogues" — to conjure a picture of the wine trade in the golden age of Greece, which he frames within both the history of archaeology and history as revealed by archaeology. There's a bit of his own underwater history thrown in for good measure.

There are shipwrecks that tell of the Roman Empire, of early Christianity and early Byzantium, of Tang China and Viking seafaring. There is also, necessarily, a good deal of speculation (36 "mights" and 103 "woulds" in the first 150 pages).

That gives way to deeper documentation as Gibbins moves on to ships of Elizabethan England, the Dutch Golden Age, the African slave trade, piracy, Arctic exploration, and, finally, the WWII battle of the Atlantic — a wreck that, Gibbins says, "brings together two of the great themes of seafaring through history, trade and conflict."

But it is in his chapter on the Viking ship, which he considers in light of the Norse sagas, that Gibbins truly puts his history into perspective. The sagas' description of the indigenous people of North America, he says, makes "Vinland the first known point at which humans had encircled the globe — the culmination of a process that had begun when early humans left Africa and went east into Asia and north into Europe, the former crossing the Bering Strait at the end of the Ice Age and the latter developing the seagoing technology that eventually led the Norse to cross the Atlantic and make contact with the other stream of humanity tens of thousands of years after their ancestors had parted ways."

Historical context doesn't get much wider than that.

Ellen Akins is a Wisconsin-based writer and teacher.

A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks

By: David Gibbins.

Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 304 pages, $32.