Archaeologists often deal with a variety of sites, each unique in its environment and setting. The early days of Maritime Archaeology witnessed a focus on specific types of sites following Keith Muckleroy’s definition of the subject. The main concern was for submerged boats and ships, excluding those in a non-maritime context such as grave finds. Submerged ancient land surfaces were also left out. The constraints set by Muckleroy were too restrictive, however, and thereafter challenged by several maritime archaeologists such as Sean McGrail.During the last twenty years, there has been a significant change in the breadth of maritime archaeology and shift away from a pure focus on shipwreck sites in a maritime context. The introduction of the concept of maritime cultural landscapes by Christer Westerdahl as a heritage management tool, brought further attention to waterborne transport technology, networks and industries, coastal settlements, ports and harbours, seafaring and seafaring communities, ritual and funerary deposits as well as any related remains of human activity.With the growing awareness of past sea level and climatic changes, and coastal processes, the study of submerged landscapes gained momentum. The construction of dams and transgression of rivers and lakes have created flooded landscapes that once contained cities, dwellings, grave sites and other infrastructure. Erosion, natural sand movement and changing sea level also contributed to a partial or full flooding of terrestrial sites.The oceans’ shoreline, lakes and rivers had always a considerable influence on human population as they offered food supply and opportunity for travel, communication and trade. Therefore, rivers, lakes and wetlands are places of interest as these have been popular locations for human activity. Testifying to this is a rich record of drowned artefacts along historic shorelines, deep in the mud of lakebeds and swamps and along the banks of many ancient rivers and waterways.Nowadays maritime archaeologists engage with a multitude of environments and sites which can be summarised as follows:
Underwater Archaeological Sites
These include sites which are exposed on the seabed or buried beneath sediments, located offshore. Such sites mainly incorporate shipwrecks and palaeolandscapes. The offshore zone is continually submerged, hence working in such an environment requires a specific set of skills and technology. Diving, systematic underwater excavation methods, the use of AUVs and ROVs, and geophysical surveying, are common practices on offshore sites. These sites are usually less exposed to human activity and thereby better preserved.
The first underwater excavation to have been carried out by archaeologists was directed by George Bass, an archaeologist from the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, in 1960. He led a team of archaeologists and excavated a late 2nd millennium BC wreck at Cape Gelidonya in south-western Turkey. His work demonstrated that archaeologists-led scientific wreck investigation was possible.Nowadays, underwater excavations and surveys benefit from advanced technological developments in oceanographic sciences allowing archaeologists to transcend depth limits, and leading to new discoveries (e.g. the Mars wreck).
Wetlands are the most biodiverse habitats in the world and consist of shallow areas of land that are covered with fresh- or saltwater that allow the growth of rooted or anchored plants. The formation of wetlands begins with the saturation of land habitat. When glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age and the shallow depressions left over filled with water, sediment and organic debris accumulated in the depression and left behind shallow wetland ponds surrounded by dry land. Wetlands also form when rivers overflow, and changes in sea level or heavy rainfall saturate dry areas. There are coastal tidal wetlands, salt marshes, and inland freshwater wetlands and ponds.Wetlands offer great opportunities for the use of natural resources, trade and transport where water and land meet. People often constructed wooden and stone trackways and platforms to enable activities at the edge of wetlands. Such areas generally have good preservation of organic materials such as timber, bone, and textiles and their study provides information on socio-economic organisation and resource procurement of prehistoric communities.In summary, maritime archaeologists work in a range of site types, underwater and terrestrial, that fall within the maritime sphere of affairs in any social, economic, political, ritualistic, and technological form.Esther Unterweger & Crystal Safadi*Dead water is a phenomenon which occurs when a layer of fresh water rests on top of denser salt water, without the two layers mixing. This can generate sub-surface waves, invisible above the waterline, which can lead to boats slowing down or even being stopped.
We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.
We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas. You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.