Three scientist brothers, Levon, Hovsep, and Ruben, would make important contributions to Soviet and Armenian scholarship in the first half of the twentieth century. The elder, Ruben Orbeli, after a long career in law, would go into archaeology, becoming the founder of submarine archaeology in the Soviet Union.
Ruben Orbeli was born on February 7, 1880, in Nakhijevan. He received his elementary education first in Kutais (Kutaisi, Georgia) and then in the third gymnasium of Tiflis (Tbilisi). He graduated from the School of Law at the University of St. Petersburg in 1903 and went on to teach in the chair of Civil Law. In 1905-1907, he studied at the universities of Jena and Bonn, in Germany, and earned a doctorate in law. After returning to Russia, he was elected full member of the Law Society of the Imperial University of St. Petersburg and worked in the Senate as head secretary of the Committee of Cassation.
In 1918-1921, Orbeli taught law and philosophy at the chair of ethics in the School of Pedagogy of the State Institute of Tambov. Returning to Petrograd (the new name of St. Petersburg), he worked at the library of Academy of Sciences of Russia. His lengthy experience in archives and libraries in those years turned him into a specialist in the field. He found his life vocation in those years: the field of submarine investigation.
Starting in 1934, Orbeli headed the Special-Purpose Rescue Underwater Party. He studied Assyrian sculptures, seals with images of divers, and the works of Greek authors to investigate their social situation and other issues, the conditions of work, their outfit, and their work materials. He also studied the works of Leonardo da Vinci and the eighteenth century Russian manuscript sources. His enormous study of literature and archival sources led Orbeli to the foundation of a new branch of science, submarine archaeology.
Orbeli spent a total of fifteen years in these studies, utilizing primary sources, for which he made recourse to his knowledge of 12 languages (Russian, Georgian, Armenian, Latin, Greek, English, French, German, Spanish, Swedish, modern and old Italian). His rescue parties discovered the remainders of a submarine Greek city in Crimea. He suggested a way to strengthen the coasts in order to protect submarine structures and proposed various ways to extract ancient objects from the water and ensure their maintenance.
Orbeli authored several works on law and submarine archaeology in Russian and also made translations from German and French.
He passed away in Moscow on May 9, 1943, and was buried in the Armenian cemetery.