Alaska's Maritime Heritage

Diver maps shipwreck site

Alaska's past is preserved in archaeological and historical sites and maritime cultural landscapes along Alaska's coast. For thousands of years, the majority of our state's population has lived along or near the coast where proximity to the sea and major rivers meant ready access to natural resources. Eroding midden deposits and village sites, along with the remains of fish traps and canoe runs, now comprise an archaeological record that bears witness to the marine subsistence strategies and ecological realms of the past. Later, the exploration of Alaska's coast by 18th and 19th century Russian fur-hunters, and their establishment of settlements, also left a legacy of preserved material culture. This includes remnants of pier foundations, the sites of shipyards, eroding settlements, and shipwrecks. The transfer of Alaska from Russia to the U.S. set the stage for the industrialization of fisheries, particularly salmon, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period, many of Alaska's coastal villages and fishing camps became the sites of the large canneries with which the communities have identified for generations. This precipitated the establishment of harbors and piers that provided critical transportation infrastructure. This was of critical importance during the gold rush era when coastal waters brought tens of thousands of prospectors to Alaska. During this time, the federal government began building lighthouses at strategic locations, charted the coastline, funded harbors, and established military bases along the coast. All of these chapters of Alaska history left a legacy of tangible maritime heritage, including submerged sites that have not be recorded or studied to the same degree as more easily accessible terrestrial sites.

  • Resources in Peril

    • It is currently estimated that as many as 3,000 shipwrecks and an untold number of inundated terrestrial sites may be located within Alaska's waters. Heritage sites within the dynamic coastal zone are especially vulnerable to damage or loss through human and natural forces. Subsidence of lands around the Gulf of Alaska as a result of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, as with previous seismic events, inundated or placed many coastal sites within the reach of storm waves. We now anticipate that predicted rising sea levels and changing storm patterns over the next few decades will further alter the shape of coastline, speeding erosion and submerging or destroying many cultural sites. The effects of climate change on underwater sites is largely unknown, although it is expected that negative impacts will occur from changing currents, ocean acidification, and expanding ranges of boring marine organisms. Human impacts include increasing infrastructure for oil extraction, the laying of subsea communications cables, and bottom trawling. Concurrent with these impacts, the recent diffusion of new and inexpensive remote sensing, navigation, and diving technologies has removed many of the barriers that previously prevented site discovery and exploration. This has resulted in new discoveries and knowledge, but also an increase in incidents involving the disturbance of protected heritage sites.

  • Ownership and Legal Protections

    • The State of Alaska owns the vast majority of lands between mean high tide and three miles (4.8 km) from shore. Exceptions include lands that have been conveyed from the state as municipal entitlements and small parcels, such as tidelands and/or limited submerged lands surrounding old canneries or patented lots that predate statehood. Submerged cultural resources must be interpreted in the complexities of a legal framework grounded both in traditional admiralty law and more recent laws aimed at resource protection. Attorney and diver David Howe adeptly explains the broader legal framework in the attached document (Howe 2000). The protection of submerged cultural resource sites in Alaska is achieved largely through implementation of several sections of the Alaska Historic Preservation Act (AS 41.35), which affirms the State's "title to all historic, prehistoric, and archeological resources situated on land owned or controlled by the state, including tideland and submerged land ... " While recognizing the complexities of the "law of the sea," the State of Alaska asserts a colorable claim on the resources described in AS 41.35 for purposes of protecting the resources under the Act. In essence, the state assumes ownership and management responsibility until the courts decide otherwise. Management responsibility is delegated to the Office of History and Archaeology (OHA), within the Department of Natural Resources.

  • What is Underwater Archaeology?

    • 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.

      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.)

  • The Challenge and the Future

    • OHA is challenged by limited resources in its responsibility to manage a vast number of submerged and intertidal cultural sites. To overcome this limitation, the state has begun to partner with federal agencies and academic institutions outside Alaska to begin generating the baseline data needed to identify, manage, and interpret maritime heritage resources. In recent years, concurrent with technological innovations and the growth of academic programs in maritime archaeology worldwide, there has been increasing interest in the exploration of Alaska waters. The state has partnered with outside agencies and organizations to conduct several important maritime heritage projects over the last several years. It is unrealistic, however, to expect that Alaska's fragile maritime resources can be recorded and protected by the state and its partners alone. Along with the gradual compilation of baseline information, the most important step in resource protection is the development of public education and diver outreach programs. In September 2010, the State partnered with the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to offer Alaska's first Maritime Heritage Training workshops to a diverse audience of recreational divers and nonprofessionals, as well as terrestrial archaeologists. The study and management of Alaska's maritime heritage is still in its infancy but, with assistance from our professional and avocational partners, the outlook is promising.

  • Further Information