Marine Archaeology of the Caribbean Draft #1

This topic submitted by Kat Byerly ( at 11:37 PM on 6/12/03.

The views are spectacular at the wall break, 25 m deep, San Salvador, Bahamas.

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University


Our Underwater Heritage

Our Underwater Heritage

A Look At Underwater

Kathryn Byerly


style='font-family:"Times New Roman"'>The waters that make up the oceans,
rivers, and lakes of the Earth cover a vast majority of our planet’s surface;
yet with depths miles deep in places, it distinctly remains the most
unexplored, and arguably the most feared, of our surface"mso-spacerun: yes">  These threatening waters claim many
boats and ships every year – and hundreds throughout history – as well as
covers vast expanses of ancient cities, the most famous of which – Atlantis,
the fabled home to an advanced group of ancient peoples – has never even been

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            Traditional
archaeology is the “study of our past human culture through material remains” (Encyclopedia).style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Most people have seen pictures of the
great pyramids of Egypt, or have learned about the temples of ancient
Greece.  These once great buildings
are prime examples of the amazing empires that once covered the Earth whose
ruins archaeologists now study. 
Such impressive landmarks, however, represent a mere fraction of the
hundreds of thousands of archaeological remains that cover the land and fill
the waters.

style='mso-tab-count:2'>                        The
history of archaeology began in ancient Greece with the man who is considered
to be the first true archaeologist – the ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus (Encyclopedia
33).  During the fifth century
B.C., Herodotus wrote about the ancient pyramids and embalming techniques that
amazed him. Later, in the medieval period, many philosopher and artists became
interested in the vast ruins of ancient Rome, modeling philosophies and works
of art after the Roman period.  In
1711, antiques were discovered while digging a well, and seven years later the
sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii were unearthed, two cities completely
destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79 (Encyclopedia 34).

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            Despite
the rise in discoveries, such sites remained only a delightful curiosity until
the 1860’s, when Fiorelli of Italy began systematic excavations in the Bay of
Naples (Encyclopedia 34). 
From then on, Europeans scientists flocked to various ancient sites to
record, survey and excavate the plethora of antiquities and history found
there.  The excavations began to
fuel entire artistic and decorative styles, such as the renewal of Egyptian
styles after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon during his campaigns
in 1798.

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            While
there are various types of archaeology, this paper will focus on the type that
takes place under the water, in the depths of the least explored regions of the
world. Underwater archaeology is “concerned with the sunken or shoreside
material evidence for (human) waterborne enterprise – trade, travel, warfare,
communication, etc.” (Encyclopedia).  The latter type of archaeology is the form heavily covered
throughout this discussion.

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            Underwater
archaeology is a “distinct form, studying the submerged remains of cities and
other types of settlements, as well as evidence of human interaction with the
water, such as ships, shoreside facilities, etc. (Bass 13)style="mso-spacerun: yes">  The study of maritime archaeology is a
more specific type of archaeology, focusing mainly on shipwrecks and other
underwater sites of that category. 
During the fledging years of underwater archaeology, many discovered
sites were simply exposed and explored without the professional surveying and
conservation procedures, and without professionally trained"mso-spacerun: yes">  With the creation of the Self Contained
Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) however, scholars such as Jacques
Cousteau were able to train themselves in the art of excavation and apply such
techniques to an underwater environment (Encyclopedia 436).

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            The
first person to truly be called an underwater archaeologist was George Bass, a
professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who surveyed and excavated an
underwater wreck in 1960.  He was
the first to completely adapt the strategies of on-land excavations to
underwater situations, “including the use of airlifts, photomosaics, lifting
bags, and slates with clear mylar for taking notes” which will be discussed
shortly (Encyclopedia 259).

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            Underwater
archaeology has brought to light some extremely important ideas about how
medieval, ancient, prehistoric and even modern people"mso-spacerun: yes">  Artifacts recovered from underwater
sites include the Paleolithic cave paintings in Cosquer, France, wooden tools
in North America, Iron Age wooden settlements in Switzerland,style="mso-spacerun: yes">  well-preserved clothing, food, and
weapons from various wrecks all over the world, and even some brain material
from about 11,000 years ago at a burial site in Warm Mineral Springs, Florida (Diving
37).  Such discoveries not only
provide information on how these people lived, but also provide ideas as to how
the evolution of human culture – societies, politics, economies, and religions
– over the past 10,000 years. 
While only one percent of the world’s waters have been explored, “underwater
excavation techniques have opened up an entirely new frontier for
archaeological exploration” (Diving 39).

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            When
an underwater wreck site is discovered, the archaeologist must first think
about two main points – the filtering process and the scrambling"mso-spacerun: yes">  The filtering processes are the
floating away of material that occurs when the ship is wrecked, salvage
operations that occurred before or directly after the ship sank and the
disintegration of perishable items, which all may remove and destroy artifacts
from the archaeological record – the entirety of items produced, altered,
and/or used by humans (Encyclopedia).  The scrambling process is the process by which “items are
removed from the ship by either the breaking up of a ship on the surface or the
gradual breakdown of a ship on the bottom of a body of water” (Diving
62).  By taking these processes
into account, an archaeologist can begin the reconstruction process –
determining the cause of the wreck and the original state of the ship or other

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            After
a hypothesized reconstruction of a site is created, a scientist may begin a
formal excavation.  A basic part of
the excavation of an underwater site is the SCUBA.  This is a unit that includes an open circuit where
compressed air supported by the diver is taken in and then released into the
water.  Another important aspect of
underwater excavation devices used is the airlift, used to raise sediments to
the surface.  The basic form is a
long tube with a surface-supplied air hose and a diver operated valve attached
near the working end,” the mix of air and water creating a strong suction (Encyclopedia
22).  These instruments however, do
not work well in shallow water and can prove too strong for delicate sites,
destroying artifacts. 

style='font-family:"Times New Roman"'>Archaeologists also use a direct survey
method to take the measurements of site. 
This method allows scientists to measure depth, length, distance
bearings, etc. underwater using a tape measure that suits underwater
geometry.  This method helps to
minimize error and also helps the scientist to determine a suitable excavation
method (Bass 125). 

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            During
excavation, unneeded material is removed, archaeological material is observed,
interpreted and recorded, and the site recovered and conserved. There are two
main types of excavation methods than can be used.  The first is used in a fairly calm environment with a large
staff of workers (Bass 103). 
It surveys a large area of land, moving layer by"mso-spacerun: yes">  When conditions are rough and there is
not a large staff available, a method by which small sections of a site are
surveyed layer-by-layer one at a time across the entire site (Bass
103).  After a method is chosen, a
grid system – used only when material being excavated is extremely delicate –
or a trench system is laid down to mark the area of survey. When measurements
are taken and observations recorded, that information is either interpreted by
scientists themselves or, more recently, entered into a computer, which can
recreate the site, the original state of the ship, the cause of the wreck, and
can even predict the future state of the wreck and suggest a course of
conservation procedures.

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            Before
any extensive excavation can take place, extreme conservation procedures must
be completed.  Because of the
corrosive nature of water and underwater environments, conservation is the most
important aspect of underwater archaeology (Pearson 12).style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Metal objects must be cleaned of any
calcium, magnesium, and other corrosion products – usually by use of
electrolyte reduction – all the while recording the objects found, their
condition, procedures used, photographs, drawings, and"mso-spacerun: yes">  Afterwards, the items must be covered
with tannic acid or another substance that will prevent further"mso-spacerun: yes">  Organic materials are freeze-dried in
order to preserve their shape and dry them out (Pearson 85).style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            The
Caribbean Sea is the site of various shipwrecks, all the way from Florida to
the northern coast of South America. 
Because it was both the site of a busy trade route and unpredictable
weather, many wrecks are still being discovered in the area"mso-spacerun: yes">  One of the most notable and first
discovered wreck in the Bahamas is the Highborn Cay"mso-spacerun: yes">  This wooden sailing ship off the Exumas
Islands is located in 6 m of extremely rough waters.  It was discovered in 1965 by a couple of American divers and
was roughly excavated over the next two years, the artifacts studied very
little and dispersed (Carrell). 
In 1985, Texas A&M University conducted excavations of the site and
determined that the ship used to be a 16th century Spanish ship,
making it one of the earliest shipwrecks in the"mso-spacerun: yes">  Four anchors were found around the
wreck, meaning the hip probably sank while at anchor (Carrell).style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Because of the unprofessional
excavation during the 60s, precise dating of the wreck is"mso-spacerun: yes">  Another wreck, the St. John’s Bahamas
Wreck was discovered off the coast of Little Bahama Island in 1991.

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            Another
wreck of the northern Caribbean is the Bahia Mujeresstyle='font-family:"Times New Roman"'> Wreck, located off the coast of Cancun,
Mexico.  Discovered in 1958 when a
wrought iron canon was brought to the surface, it was left to rest until 1984
when Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Anthropologia e Historia and the
educational group CEDAM.  While the
identity of the ship remains a mystery, it has been relocated to safer waters
and plans to continue excavations remain stable (Marx 122).

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            In
the Florida Keys, many shipwrecks that have been recently discovered have not
been professionally excavated; instead, they were surveyed by treasure
hunters.  Such sites include
Spanish flagships of the Nuestra Senora de Atochastyle='font-family:"Times New Roman"'> and ships from the Flota of 1733 from
Spain.  The Atochestyle='font-family:"Times New Roman"'> was a yearly mission from Cuba to Spain,
bringing both passengers and treasures back to Europe (Marx 25).style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Most of the ships in that 1962 mission
sank in various hurricanes that struck the Florida"mso-spacerun: yes">  In the 1970s, various items from the
ship were found, but it wasn’t until 1985 that Treasure Salvors, Inc. found the
hull of the ship.  Found from the
ships were many bronze cannons, silver treasures, and even some seeds from Cuba
that sprouted once recovered. 
Other ships from Spanish missions found off the coast of Florida are the
Santa Margarita, San
, and ships from
the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion
all from the early 1600s (Marx 27).

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            Today,
the “interest in underwater shipwrecks has increased tenfold” (Bass
301).  It is not merely a
scientist’s playground anymore. 
More and more tourists are demanding passage to these ships, and many
agencies are continuing excavations on many others.  For example, the Treasure Salvors have future plans to
continue the recovery of the above-mentioned Atochestyle='font-family:"Times New Roman"'> and the Instituto Nacional de
Antropologia e Historia has marked the Bahia Mujeresstyle='font-family:"Times New Roman"'> wreck for future excavation (Marx
257).  One of the most active
agencies in the Caribbean is the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), an
educational society founded by George Bass in 1972 in Philadelphia (Bass
200).  Now, the staff of the INA
work at Texas A&M University, with laboratories in Turkey and"mso-spacerun: yes">  While they have excavated sites all
over the world, the concentrate mostly on the Caribbean and the Mediterranean

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            Another
important supporter of marine archaeology is the National Geographic
Society.  They supported the first
excavation of the now underwater city of Port Royale, Jamaica and made first
use of a submersible in surveying (Encyclopedia 289).

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            The
American government, too, is supporting the continuing conservation of
underwater sites.  In 1959, the
Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology was established not only to help
preserve underwater sites in North America, but also to begin programs to
educate the public about marine archaeology (Pearson 239).style="mso-spacerun: yes">  In 1982, the UN Law of the Sea
Convention “imposes a general duty on states to protect objects of an archaeological
and historical nature found at sea and cooperate for this purpose (Pearson
257).  In 1987, the US implemented
the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, which gives states the right to claim wrecks on
their own submerged lands and requires them to then create laws to protect
those “multiple-use resources” (Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987style='font-family:"Times New Roman"'>).   This law applies to the fifty states, Puerto Rico,
Guam, The US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana

style='mso-tab-count:1'>            In
1971, an area in the Florida Keys was established at the Dry Tortugas National
Park to protect the dozens of wrecks contained"mso-spacerun: yes">  The area collected so many wrecks
because the water is extremely shallow, contains three bank reef systems, and
also lies on what used to be a major trade route (Pearson 132).style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Many groups, including the State of
Florida and the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit (SCRU), are investing in
continuous excavations of many wrecks in the Dry Tortugas National Park,
including the East Key Wreck, the Maria Lousiastyle='font-family:"Times New Roman"'>, and the Dry Tortugas National Park
Shipwreck DRTO-036 (Bass 90).

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