A Quick Introduction to Nautical Archaeology

Nautical archaeology is a relatively recent field of research that aims at learning more about our human past through shipwrecks.  In 1960, George Bass, Peter Throckmorton and a team of archaeologists and divers began the first archaeological research project designed to excavate a shipwreck underwater near Cape Gelidonya, Turkey. This initial research spurred on a lot of international interest, and in 1973, Dr. Bass founded the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, a non-profit research group still functioning today that supports nautical research.

The careful excavation and analysis of ancient ship timbers actually began in the late 19th century, but these sites were studied on land in the form of ship burials or abandoned vessels. The Gokstad ship and the Oseberg ship, both found in Norway, are two examples of Nordic vessels found in burial mounds, and excavated over a hundred years ago. The Hjortspring boat is another shipwreck site excavated on land, however the site was found in a bog and covered in layers of peat and mud.  Only after the site was excavated and continuously pumped dry did the archaeologist determine it was most likely a sacrificial offering, where the ship, weapons, armor and other artifacts of an invading party were broken, stoned and tossed into the bog. 

The major limiting factor to this science has been the development of technology. The devices and electronics needed to access these underwater sites, as well as to locate, survey, excavate and most importantly conserve the artifacts and timbers that are brought up, have only developed in the past century.  However, since the fields of underwater sciences and technologies in general are rapidly expanding, it allows for increasing collaborative research between historians, archaeologists, oceanographers, etc. as well as other groups outside of academia, such as oil and gas companies, and government agencies. These groups create a high demand for scanning and mapping technologies that push the boundaries of research and support many of the endeavors. 

Some of the most recent impressive finds are coming from deep water sites where scanning technologies assisted by ROV’s (Remotely Operated Vehicles) AUV’s (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles), research vessels, and manned submersibles are discovering well-preserved shipwrecks (such as the Ghost Wreck).  Other digital imaging methods allow for incredibly accurate models and reconstructions that can bring a wreck and its crew “back to life” in the eyes of researchers and the public.  A great example is the Confederate submarine Hunley which disappeared shortly after becoming the first submersible to sink an enemy ship, the USS Housatonic, during the Civil War.  The Hunley was recently discovered and excavated, and a major research initiative is underway to study and protect the vessel.  All eight of her crew that were on board perished in the last or her three sinkings, though through proper research, many have been identified and reconstructed. 

The future of nautical archaeology is boundless; although friction between researchers and treasure hunters has persisted for many generations, and current laws and regulations seem to change regularly.  Nautical archaeology and research is a method of documenting and, if possible recovering, conserving, and presenting to the public rare and unique cultural material.  The idea is that people as whole, not just wealthy collectors, should be able to appreciate the history. Often this work is slow, methodical, and returns little financial value, if any, which is where the drawback is for investors interested in shipwrecks and their history. 

Treasure hunting is a commercial enterprise which is seeking valuable cultural material to obtain, sell, and profit from.  Treasure hunters, by and large, have difficulty selling wooden timbers, bits of rigging, concreted fasteners, and the thousands of other non-valuable artifacts associated with the site, and can turn higher profits by focusing their efforts on the recovery of valuables.  What is confounding to most archaeologists is why this is allowed to happen at all, when it would be seen as inexcusable to sack, loot, or sell off an Egyptian tomb, a Mayan temple, or a Greek complex.  Because it is underwater, it is away from public opinion, does not exist until found, and is fair game until claimed. This is what it was like no so long ago for land sites in Egypt, Latin America, and Greece until the people of these countries spoke up.

What nautical archaeologists need to prove in the future to the public, to investors, to treasure hunters, and to governments and national agencies is that it is far more valuable, both financially and through the immeasurable, lasting worth of knowledge, education and cultural appreciation, to invest in long-term research, excavation, and conservation plans that provide consistent revenue through museum exhibitions, publications, educational materials and a variety of other strategies.  In short, people are happy to give millions to live vicariously through treasure hunters who rarely find anything of value, but comb over less-immediate, more worthwhile investments directly into research.  Most treasure hunting ‘expeditions’ return no profit to the investors, and those that do usually receive the bits of timber, concretions, bolts, and other items that were not able to be sold, and will never be conserved (so they will ultimately disappear).  If a proper excavation was funded, most archaeologists would be happy to allow investors to visit the sites themselves, learn what’s going on first-hand, and see their investment fund a student’s research, or enter a museum for the general public to enjoy.