Underwater Archaeology

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

MARITIME ARCHAEOLOGY is a sub-discipline of the general field of archaeology. It is the systematic documentation and recovery of information from submerged artifacts and underwater sites for the interpretation of past human cultures. Artifacts and sites, the locations of past human activity, possess information about human behaviour in both the nature of the objects and in their exact distribution on or under the seafloor. In its most basic form, is the study of material culture related to human interaction with the sea. It involves the study of ships and shipwrecks, maritime infrastructure, heritage exploitation, maritime identities and landscapes, seascapes, and other types of heritage, both tangible and intangible.

source- NOAA ONMS


The methods associated with Underwater Archaeology emphasise the information content of the submerged site and the careful systematic approach to data collection that most protects and preserves the resource for current and future generations. Once a site or its artifacts are damaged or haphazardly removed, there is no way to access its information and recreate the story it might have told.

It is increasingly clear that the methods and uses of underwater archaeology are equally applicable to a wide variety of resources, including aviation properties, submerged habitation sites, historic landings and anchorages, etc. Today it is strongly influenced by anthropological and historical trends and reliant on associated multidisciplinary fields, such as material cultural analysis, geography/GIS, and oceanography. The majority of projects today involve diving, and these capabilities and inherent risks must be understood by the marine protected areas manager. Archaeologists, luckily have plenty of technology to combat these challenges. LiDAR can reveal structures and objects underwater and map sites; sonar, magnetometors, and other remote sensing devices can help, too. Advanced photography and videography can bring sites to life even for those who’ll never venture into the water. And a new generation of submersibles is driving new discoveries. The R/V Petrel, for example, carries two onboard robots that have helped uncover 21 World War II vessels, including the U.S.S. Indianapolis.


Training in Underwater Archaeology includes field data collection, interpretation, and site preservation. The terminal degree for a job in the professional field of underwater archaeology is the Masters degree, which is currently available from only a few universities (Texas A&M, East Carolina University, University of West Florida). Various public education courses also provide knowledge of basic methods and experiential learning, emphasising the preservation approach to artifacts and sites. Non-profit organisations (e.g. NAS, MAHS, PAST) have developed a hands-on training program specifically for sport divers. These public experiences emphasise basic non-intrusive methods. For the assessment of cultural heritage resources within a marine protected area which will meet state and federal review standards, professional experience is a requirement.

Opportunities and Obligations

Cultural and historic properties like underwater archaeological sites are non-renewable resources which often possess unique information about the past. They often consist of public property on public bottomlands, a heritage resource owned by the people. The careful investigation of these sites can literally open a new window on voyaging and nautical technology, cultural contact and trade, marine resource use, ancient habitation, and provide insight into our past unavailable from any other source. The information held by these sites, however, is vulnerable to a host of threats, including biochemical deterioration, coastal development, and human impacts such as illegal looting or inadvertent site damage.

source- NOAA ONMS

Risks and threats

Diving carries an inherent risk that cannot be reduced to zero. Whether engaging trained volunteers for opportunistic surveys, paid divers for professional services, or simply promoting shipwrecks for recreational tourism, managers may be "encouraging" inherently risky activity. Site managers must understand the risk and liability issues that pertain to their own sites, for there is no "one-size-fits-all" answer.

Where any individuals are paid to dive (ie employer/employee relationship), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) addresses inherent risk and governs all aspects of the work site, including equipment, air requirements, safety, operational procedures, etc. OSHA diving regulations were implemented in 1978 for the regulation of commercial diving, such as dam construction, offshore oil field diving, and ship husbandry. In 1984 OSHA issued a "scientific exemption" for specific limited activities, allowing science divers to operate beyond the strict limitations of the construction industry. The exemption required that science diving be governed by a diving safety manual covering operational and emergency procedures, and establishing diver training and certification criteria. Furthermore, a diving control board with the majority of its members being active divers would oversee all science diving operations.

Helping hands

Underwater archaeology also depends on good relationships with other communities familiar with the bodies of water they work in. That became clear to researchers who were alerted to a large cache of shipwrecks near Fourni, Greece, by a local fisher. The assistance of the area’s fishers ended up helping archaeologists discover 23 shipwrecks in the area in 22 days. Volunteers can drive much of the field, as in Florida, where volunteers work alongside archaeologists.

Local and international laws also apply: UNESCO, the UN’s cultural arm, has established international law around underwater cultural heritage that mandates in situ (“in place”) preservation as the ideal option when researching a submerged archaeological site. That means many underwater finds must be left where they were found.

IT'S ALWAYS been difficult to access sites under water, but there’s a particular allure to potential archaeological sites hidden under oceans, lakes, and rivers. Shipwrecks are far from the only thing to document, study, and preserve underwater: there’s also everything from very ancient human remains to submerged settlements, like portions of ancient Alexandria, the Egyptian city that partially sank into the Mediterranean over the centuries.

Internships for Maritime Archaeology

  1. NHHC Internship: https://www.history.navy.mil/get-involved/internships.html

  2. NREIP: https://nreip.asee.org/

  3. AAA Internship: http://www.americananthro.org/LearnAndTeach/Content.aspx…

  4. PPIP: http://ppip.tamu.edu/Internships







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