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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 areas. 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 found.
Traditional archaeology is the “study of our past human culture through material remains” (Encyclopedia). 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.
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).
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 afterthe discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon during his campaigns in 1798.
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.
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) 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 divers. 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).
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).
Underwater archaeology has brought to light some extremely important ideas about how medieval, ancient, prehistoric and even modern people lived. Artifacts recovered from underwater sites include the Paleolithic cave paintings in Cosquer, France, wooden tools in North America, Iron Age wooden settlements in Switzerland, 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).
When an underwater wreck site is discovered, the archaeologist must first think about two main points – the filtering process and the scrambling process. 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 300). 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 site.
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.
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).
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 layer. 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.
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). 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 measurements. Afterwards, the items must be covered with tannic acid or another substance that will prevent further corrosion. Organic materials are freeze-dried in order to preserve their shape and dry them out (Pearson 85).
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 today. One of the most notable and first discovered wreck in the Bahamas is the Highborn Cay Wreck. 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 Americas. Four anchors were found around the wreck, meaning the hip probably sank while at anchor (Carrell). Because of the unprofessional excavation during the 60s, precise dating of the wreck is impossible. Another wreck, the St. John’s Bahamas Wreck was discovered off the coast of Little Bahama Island in 1991.
Another wreck of the northern Caribbean is the Bahia Mujeres 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).
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 Atocha and ships from the Flota of 1733 from Spain. The Atoche was a yearly mission from Cuba to Spain, bringing both passengers and treasures back to Europe (Marx 25). Most of the ships in that 1962 mission sank in various hurricanes that struck the Florida Keys. 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 Martin, and ships from the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, all from the early 1600s (Marx 27).
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 Atoche and the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia has marked the Bahia Mujeres 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 Egypt. While they have excavated sites all over the world, the concentrate mostly on the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Seas.
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).
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). 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 1987). This law applies to the fifty states, Puerto Rico, Guam, The US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
In 1971, an area in the Florida Keys was established at the Dry Tortugas National Park to protect the dozens of wrecks contained therein. 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). 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 Lousia, and the Dry Tortugas National Park Shipwreck DRTO-036 (Bass 90).
Shipwrecks provide an excellent tourist attraction for those seeking a little adventure and a little history. More than that, however, they provide a step back in time, and insight into both our culture and past cultures. We can see how people lived and interacted with one another, their technology and their shortcomings. If one considers the vast amounts of unexplored waters there are in the world, he could not even imagine the possibilities of new discoveries that lay before the people of the world. Marine archaeology is not something that should be put off as merely a hobby or idle interest. Instead, like many agencies in the US and the world are beginning to do, should be embraced as a look into our history, and should be conserved for the future.
Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987. Public law 100-298, 43 USC, 2101-2106. Approved 28 April, 1988.
Bass, George Fletcher. Archaeology Underwater. London: Thames & Hudson, 1966.
Carrell, Toni, Donald Kieth and Denise Lakey. “Ships of Discovery.” 7 May 2003. “Diving Into the Past: Theories, Techniques and Applications of Underwater Archaeology”. Conference on Underwater Archaeology. eds. June Drenning Holmquist and Ardis Hillman Wheeler. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1964. Encyclopedia of Underwater and Maritime Archaeology. James Delgado, ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997. Lehihan, Daniel. Submerged. New York: The Newmarket Press, 2002; Marx, Robert. Shipwrecks of the Western Hemisphere. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1971. Pearson, Colin. Conservation of the Underwater Heritage. Stoneham, MA: Butterworths, 1987.
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“Diving Into the Past: Theories, Techniques and Applications of Underwater Archaeology”. Conference on Underwater Archaeology. eds. June Drenning Holmquist and Ardis Hillman Wheeler. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1964.
Encyclopedia of Underwater and Maritime Archaeology. James Delgado, ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
Lehihan, Daniel. Submerged. New York: The Newmarket Press, 2002;
Marx, Robert. Shipwrecks of the Western Hemisphere. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1971.
Pearson, Colin. Conservation of the Underwater Heritage. Stoneham, MA: Butterworths, 1987.
We also have a GUIDE for depositing articles, images, data, etc in your research folders.
Article complete. Click HERE to return to the Pre-Course Presentation Outline and Paper Posting Menu. Or, you can return to the course syllabus
Listen to a "Voice Navigation" Intro! (Quicktime or MP3)
It is 9:09:27 AM on Monday, May 21, 2018. Last Update: Wednesday, May 7, 2014