Man has always had a relationship with the sea and the lakes and rivers in his environment. Ever since prehistoric times, people have always found a way to develop ways of travelling on the waterways and harvesting the marine life under the ocean to supply them with food. While traditional archaeology focuses on discovering ways in which people lived on the land, there is a branch of this discipline known as maritime archaeology, which focuses on studying the ways in which mankind has interacted with the waters around which people lived.
The study of the types of vessels used for transportation, the facilities used on shore, the types of cargoes carried on ships and the manner in which the various types of watercraft were propelled falls within the realm of maritime archaeology. The study of shipwrecks is a major portion of this discipline and it provides a wealth of information about past civilizations that traditional archaeological methods of discovery are unable to divulge. Maritime archaeology, while still studying the manner in which early people lived, uses a different type of artefacts and different factors affect their discovery and recovery.
The real challenge in maritime archaeology presents itself in finding a way to preserve the discoveries. These are always underwater and salt water can play havoc on the artefacts, causing rot and decay, especially of the prehistoric vessels. Salt water can cause damage to any ships made of iron causing them to rust and become dangerous locations. Wooden boats, which were the most commonly used in prehistoric times, are susceptible to the sea organisms that dine on them. After centuries of being on the ocean floor can leave very few traces of their existence.
The archaeologists who search for these artefacts must be expert divers and be able to interpret the signs of the weather and the sea conditions in the area where they suspect discoveries are waiting to be found. Even when the underwater archaeologists are fairly certain of a location of a shipwreck, a rocky coastline can present numerous problems. The rise and fall of the tides as well as the force of the waves can cause the ships to split in pieces and become dispersed over a wide area of the sea.
Some shipwrecks that occurred near the coasts have been destroyed on the rocks and have been broken into pieces right away. In areas where oil and gas have been discovered, laying pipes underwater has also played a part in destroying evidence, leaving any traces that still do exist impossible to find.
The best preserved maritime archaeological artefacts have been in areas where the sea bed is amenable to the preservation of the materials used in construction and the cargo. Once the artefacts are brought to the surface, care has to be taken to protect them from the air because this can also bring harm to what has been found.
Ancient villages have been discovered under the ocean and lakes through maritime archaeology and the inventions that have made it possible to dive to previously impossible depths. Due to the Ice Age and the melting which followed, much of the life that existed prior to this time is now underwater. Earthquakes have also made it possible to discover unknown sites because of the shifting of the earth which brought such sites into focus.
Although the focus of maritime archaeology is mainly underwater with shipwrecks, there is also a lot of work done along the coastlines. Many structures still remain along the coasts providing evidence of the lifestyle of early cultures of the world. These include methods of catching fish, such as traps, weirs and dams. Early harbours that specialized in the repair of ships have been uncovered bringing to light the way in which this work was carried out.