Skip main navigation
We use cookies to give you a better experience, if that’s ok you can close this message and carry on browsing. For more info read our cookies policy.
We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsJON ADAMS: Maritime archaeology is the study of the way people have lived by the water, how they've harvested it, how they've travelled along it, across it, and in some cases into it. It is the archaeology of rivers, lakes, and seas, and all the locales in between. Maritime archaeologists work on land in and around these environments, but we also investigate and recover data from the water itself. At one time, it was thought even by some archaeologists that doing archaeology underwater was impossible.

Skip to 0 minutes and 36 secondsAnd one can see why, for if you don't understand marine and aquatic environments, you could be forgiven for assuming that if a ship should wreck, a harbour or settlement to be abandoned to the sea, their destruction would be both violent and inevitable. The first indications that this was not so go back a surprisingly long way. It has often been observed that the modern discipline of archaeology emerged partly out of the antiquarian traditions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet there were protracted efforts to access and understand archaeological remains found in the water in mediaeval England, Renaissance Italy, 19th century Switzerland, and in many other places.

Skip to 1 minute and 14 secondsThe even older motive of salvaging valuable materials lost in the water also gave rise to an interest in sunken history. A notable example from 19th century England were the brothers John Charles and Anthony Deane, who developed helmet diving equipment to salvage shipwrecks. Some of the wrecks they worked on were already old at the time, and they became increasingly fascinated in the historical rather than the monetary value of what they were recovering. So fascinated indeed that in order to publish their work, they commissioned beautifully scaled watercolour drawings of finds from such sites like the Mary Rose that they discovered in 1836. The Deanes has shifted from being salvers to maritime antiquarians.

Skip to 1 minute and 53 secondsIn the 20th century, there were many more recoveries carried out more or less within an antiquarian tradition. But we also see a succession of investigations that were carried out not just for interest in the sites themselves or the materials therein but for wider reasons. Amazing works of art from the classical world were found on wreck sites in the Mediterranean, for example the Antikythera in Greece. But although they were almost priceless as objects in themselves, their value as symbols of a national past was recognised as being of even greater value, especially for a young, modern state of Greece.

Skip to 2 minutes and 25 secondsIn Italy, Mussolini enjoyed something of a public relations coup as his engineers drained Lake Nemi to reveal two enormous Roman ships, creating a more or less explicit link between his regime and the world of all powerful Roman emperors. However, at the same time, we also see the beginnings of an academic approach to investigating and understanding the maritime past. In Scotland, a monk, Odo Blundell, ventured into the water in standard diving dress to try and understand the nature of prehistoric settlement sites called crannogs. This is probably the first time anybody in the British Isles entered the water purely for the purposes of research. In the 1920s, a Jesuit priest was surveying Bronze Age harbours in the Levant.

Skip to 3 minutes and 6 secondsAnd in 1930s Sweden, a Naval officer, Carl Ekman, carried out what were surprisingly sophisticated investigations on the remains of great Swedish warships and more humble merchant ships for reasons entirely based in academic research, heritage preservation, and education. It is therefore a little surprising that we have to wait until after World War II before we recognise an archaeology carried out in maritime environments or underwater that accords with current standards of research-based controlled excavation and recording and which is then held in a publicly accessible museum and published. One of the great pioneers of diving was Jacques Yves Cousteau, who with his collaborator, Emile Gagnan developed the Aqua-Lung, a modern form of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.

Skip to 3 minutes and 53 secondsCousteau's attempts at underwater archaeology weren't particularly successful. But he did set a precedent and demonstrated the facility of the new equipment not just for archaeology but for all underwater science in the shallow zone. Following Cousteau, many others tried their hand at investigating sunken ships, harbours, fish traps, and other submerged sites. But no one really succeeded in putting the whole archaeological packaged together. The first person who did so was George Bass, a young doctoral researcher from Pennsylvania University. He was convinced by Peter Throckmorton, another great pioneer of the time, to bring his research questions on eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age trade to the Turkish coast.

Skip to 4 minutes and 34 secondsThrockmorton, with the help of Turkish sponge divers, had found a site off Cape Gelidonya that turned out to be the wreck of a ship that had sunk around 1200 BC. In his approach to excavating this important site, Bass made several advantages over his predecessors. Firstly, he made few if any concessions to the fact that the site was underwater. Even though the water depth limited him and his team to 30 minutes on site at one time, he saw no reason that that 30 minutes should be any less controlled than it would be on a land site.

Skip to 5 minutes and 4 secondsHe also realised that teaching archaeologists to dive was a much quicker way of creating a professional team than teaching divers to be archaeologists, a somewhat longer process. Bass and Throckmorton excavated with control, recorded meticulously, conserved, and published, contributing to the debate about Bronze Age trade and exchange, and then backed this all up by establishing a museum to display the finds. The remarkable thing about this project is that it would satisfy all the requirements of modern professional codes of practise, including the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Following Bass, things started to develop a little faster. Ulrich Ruoff transposed land archaeology into the ice cold waters of the Swiss lakes.

Skip to 5 minutes and 46 secondsViking ships were excavated in Denmark, setting new standards of recording. In Sweden, the warship Vasa was salvaged from the bottom of Stockholm Harbour, while in Germany a mediaeval Cog was recovered from the Weser River. East Indiamen were found in Australia, Armada wrecks in the waters off Scotland and Ireland and so on. But just as maritime archaeology was building its database with these exciting finds and refining its methods, the wider discipline of archaeology was just about to enter a period of protracted and often aggressive theoretical debate. What can archaeology know about the past? How can it know it, and through what methods can we obtain our data? How do we interpret them?

Skip to 6 minutes and 25 secondsAt first, those working underwater in marine or nautical guises, all common terms at the time, remained largely unaware of the arguments raging around them. But gradually they began to transpose the theoretical approaches of the day to these new fields. Keith Muckelroy published Maritime Archaeology, in effect a manifesto for what he saw as a new, rigorous area of archaeological research full of potential to tackle big questions about the past. Maritime archaeology, he argued, was a more inclusive term largely encompassing the narrower fields of nautical archaeology and archaeology underwater. Even so, Sean McGrail felt that Muckelroy's suggested scope was too narrow, as he had excluded such sites as ship burials and coastal communities from his definition.

Skip to 7 minutes and 9 secondsIn fact, the ways that Maritime archaeology has developed since then has proved McGrail right. Maritime archaeology encompasses all these and more. Now the subject is vibrant, fast-developing, established in universities, and fast rising up the agenda of governments around the world who have come to realise that much of their most interesting archaeology is maritime and that much of that is under threat. So in the rest of this course, you'll learn not only about the theories, methods, and technologies with which we investigate the maritime past but about the current concerns and priorities of the subject and about its future directions.

History of maritime archaeology

As discussed in the video, Maritime Archaeology exploration of the sea floor has a long history - perhaps stretching back over millennia.

We know from archaeological finds that breath hold diving (without the aid of any equipment) was likely to have been carried out from at least 4500 BC, where recovery of shells on sites indicates harvesting of deeper water species. However, it is important to realise the difference between two types of activity; recovery of material from the sea floor and what today we would see as archaeology.

Some of the most spectacular finds recovered from the sea in the early twentieth century were made by breath holding sponge divers (such as the statues recovered at Antikythera in 1900 and Mahdia in 1907). However, while these finds roused archaeological interest, and no doubt led to the development of the discipline we see it today, we would not class this as archaeological work. Instead we might see it as something more like the recovery of artefacts by antiquarian collectors on land. People realised the age of these items recovered from the sea floor, valued them for it, and used them to tell the story of the development of civilisations, but it was still not archaeology.

This may sound pedantic, but it helps us to draw out an important point about what archaeology is and, as we will return to later on in the course, what isn’t archaeology. A simple way of thinking about it is that for an archaeologist to gain the most useful information from a site or object they need to understand the ‘context’ from which it came. For archaeologists context is everything. By context we mean the relationship between an artefact or site and its surrounds. For example, was the Antikythera statue recovered from the hold of the wrecked vessel (i.e. was it cargo) or was it found disassociated from it on the sea floor? This detail allows us to reconstruct the chain of events which led to the item entering the archaeological record. It is being able to carry out this detective work which lets us have confidence in the stories we tell. If we simply recover items with no attempt to record the situation we find them in, we destroy the web of information created by the relationship between the item and its context.

It is for this reason that we highlighted the work of Odo Blundell and his systematic recording of crannogs in 1909 as an early piece of archaeology underwater. Odo was driven by research questions and understood that he needed to record the relationships between the objects he encountered. It is also for this reason that most maritime archaeologists would pick out Peter Throckmorton, George Bass, Honor Frost, Joan du Plat Taylor and Keith Muckelroy as pioneers of modern maritime archaeology.

Joan du Plat Taylor, Honor Frost and Peter Throckmorton all recognised the significance of the wreck record of the Mediterranean for our understanding of human history. It was their combined efforts and belief in the value of this record that helped convince a young PhD student to invest time and effort in learning to dive. For many maritime archaeologists, it was this student (George Bass) who helped to revolutionise as the discipline.

As we noted above, one of the key distinguishing features of archaeological work is controlled recovery and recording. Prior to Bass’s work in the 1960s people had attempted this, with Les Mousquemers’ (Cousteau, Tailliez and Dumas) work at Grand Congloue in 1958 and Lamboglia’s work at Spargi in 1961 focusing on developing methods for archaeological work underwater. However, it is Bass’s work at Gelidonya from 1960 onwards which is marked out as a pivotal moment.

Fraser Sturt

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Shipwrecks and Submerged Worlds: Maritime Archaeology

University of Southampton

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join:

Contact FutureLearn for Support