Maritime archaeology is a subdiscipline of archaeology dedicated to examining prehistoric and historic sites related to aquatic environments. This can include shipwreck sites in an ocean, coastal ports, underwater archaeological remains, or any submerged land structures. The terms used to describe this field of study usually refer to the location of the sites, although shipwrecks found out of water may still be classified as maritime or nautical in nature.
Maritime archaeological sites differ from those found on land in several ways. One is that sites on land tend to include a complex series of occupation by humans over a long span of time, as well as a record of natural occurrences during or between periods of human settlement. This requires that the archaeologist carefully recover the remains within each layer of earth and determine how they are related. On the other hand, underwater sites such as shipwrecks basically represent a brief moment in time. They contain lots of objects that were on board when the ship sank and will usually include those things of everyday use such as dishes and utensils and not necessarily treasure, as typically thought by most people.
When researching underwater or coastal sites, maritime archaeologists are particularly interested in answering questions related to how humans adapted to aquatic environments, where seafaring developed in different parts of the world, methods for shipbuilding, and navigational techniques. For example, where and when were the earliest boats built and what methods were employed in their construction? How have coastlines served as physical or social boundaries and in what ways have they facilitated human expansion, population growth, and the rise of social complexity? How did maritime adaptations develop in different parts of the world and what kinds of water-craft were built as a result?
The field of maritime archaeology is a relatively new discipline. In the mid-20th century, historians and archaeologists who worked in marine (ocean), lacustrine (lake), riverine (river), estuarine (estuary), and other aquatic ecosystems felt the need to better focus their research and move away from the paradigms constructed and used in terrestrial environments. Early work in maritime archaeology often involved locating and recording underwater shipwrecks, but today we would consider the methods used to investigate and preserve these sites to be quite primitive. As a result, some professional archaeologists initially argued that these expeditions were no more than treasure hunts that did little to advance our understanding of history or archaeology.
The field has advanced beyond this stage and has now incorporated a slew of advanced techniques, such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Side-Scan Sonars, and Echo Sounders to locate and record shipwrecks and other underwater features. Although similar methods and tools may be used for surveying and excavating both submerged and terrestrial sites, the use of these underwater requires special modification to existing equipment (such as waterproof casings for cameras) and trained divers skilled in archaeological techniques.
Although maritime archaeologists can use a plethora of new technologies to learn about shipwrecks, not everyone agrees that shipwreck sites should be excavated unless the objects found can be properly preserved and undergo conservation. Some argue that important information will surely be lost or taken by looters unless it is recovered quickly and recorded. True treasure hunters have countered that many sites would never be found without their initiative and expertise and that archaeologists are trying to take away their livelihood.
Archaeologists are interested in aquatic environments because they are particularly rich in resources such as mollusks, pinnipeds (such as seals), cetaceans (whales), sea mammals, fish, crustaceans, birds, amphibians, and other animals. As a result, they are habitats that would have been extremely attractive to humans over time and stimulated human groups to exploit and travel on them using watercraft. Coastlines are also quite susceptible to the effects of global and regional shifts in climate, sea level changes, and natural catastrophes. How human beings responded to these changes can tell maritime archaeologists how quickly our species rebounded from such events, the behaviors that resulted from the alteration of these environments (did we continue to live on landscapes that were previously devastated?), and how we developed new technologies to accommodate these changes.
As maritime archaeology has grown from a relatively obscure field of study to one highly specialized and technologically advanced, our understanding of human-water relationships has been greatly illuminated. Archaeologists are no longer interested only in excavating sites and conducting pure research; they are concerned with protecting and preserving those sites. We have learned investigative techniques that are less intrusive or destructive to the archaeological record. In recent years, many countries have passed laws declaring these sites public monuments and thus protecting them from looting and desecration.
Due to the rise in popularity of this field, many institutions now offer courses and degrees in maritime archaeology. The number of museums that house objects from shipwrecks and other maritime-related archaeological sites has grown significantly and added to the human fascination with and adaptation to aquatic environments.
- Gould, R. A. (2000). Archaeology and the social history of ships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Green, J. (2004). Maritime Archaeology: A technical handbook, 2nd ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- McGrail, S. (2003). The sea and archaeology. Historical Research, 76(191), 1-17.