What is Underwater Archaeology?

Divers measuring the Kadyak hull timbers

Archaelogists measuring Kad'yak hull timbers.
Photo by Tane Casserley

Archaeology is defined as "the study of past human cultures and societies through the scientific analysis of material remains". Archaeologists seek to construct chronologies and describe behavior and culture of past societies. Underwater archaeology has the same goals, even though the environment and techniques differ from "terrestrial" archaeology. Shipwrecks are among the most-frequently investigated submerged sites, but underwater archaeologists are also interested in sunken cities and settlements, harbors and wharves, or any evidence of human activity that is now underwater. This is a large field, so most researchers specialize; "maritime" archaeologists study seafaring in its broadest sense whereas "nautical" archaeologists focus solely on ships and boats.

3 Divers   

ECU File Photo

The invention of the "aqualung" or "self-contained underwater breathing apparatus" (SCUBA) revolutionized marine archaeology. In 1960 a team led by Dr. George Bass of the University of Pennsylvania excavated a shipwreck off the coast of Turkey, dating to around 1200 BC, proving that archaeologists on the sea floor could work to the same rigorous standards of excavation and documentation as their counterparts on land.

Unfortunately, the increasing availability of SCUBA also meant that many important wrecks and other sites were looted and destroyed by treasure-hunters and artifact-collectors, causing important information to be lost forever. Archaeologists have a professional obligation to publish and disseminate the results of their work, not only to other scholars, but to the public as well. In fact, archaeologists are usually far more interested in finding items of everyday use than in treasure. Commonplace items such as tools or utensils are far more useful in reconstructing details of vanished societies than is gold or silver. Treasure-hunters, who are interested only in their own profit, have no such obligation, and may destroy everything that stands in their way of potential profit, including remains of rare ship-types and other priceless evidence of bygone cultures. Professional archaeologists take the position that shipwrecks and other submerged cultural resources belong to the public, not just to the first person who happens on the site.

Recreational divers, as distinguished from commercial treasure-hunters, have made great contributions to marine archaeology. Many British sub-aqua clubs have been instrumental in finding, investigating, and protecting wreck sites such as the famous Spanish Armada shipwreck Trinidad Valencera off Northern Ireland, and Henry VIII's Mary Rose off Portsmouth, England. Some of the best protected underwater archaeological sites in the United States are locations where archaeologists and recreational divers have worked together to investigate and protect submerged cultural resources, such as Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron. Organizations that provide funding for underwater archaeological investigations include the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), The National Science Foundation, and many private organizations. University programs offering advanced degrees in underwater archaeology exist at only two schools in the United States: East Carolina University, and Texas A & M.

(Sources: Maritime Archaeology, by Keith Muckelroy, Cambridge University Press, 1978; Archaeology Underwater, edited by Keith Muckelroy, McGraw-Hill (New York), 1980; Encyclopedia of Underwater and Maritime Archaeology, edited by James Delgado, Yale University Press, 1997.)

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