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The future of Maritime Archaeology

In this video, Peter Campbell, Crystal Safadi, Thomas Dhoop and Amelia Astley discuss four trajectories for the future of maritime archaeology.
PETER CAMPBELL: Hello, I’m Peter Campbell and I’m here with my colleagues Crystal Safadi, Thomas Dhoop and Amelia Astley and we’re talking about the future of maritime archaeology. Crystal, tell us a little bit about how you see the future maritime archaeology developing.
CRYSTAL SAFADI: Well, I think of the future of maritime archaeology actually lies in people and especially in places where maritime archaeology is relatively nascent, it is very important to encourage the interest and the subject and build capacity and train archaeologists and divers and I think one of the key steps we’ve undertaken is to promote local, professional archaeologists who are capable of preserving and managing their own maritime culture and heritage. So what about other development such as technology?
THOMAS DHOOP: Well I think concerning underwater technology, there are two developments we should be looking out for in the near future. The first one is the growing use Autonomous Underwater Vehicles or AOVs. These are robots that can independently survey the sea floor using underwater digital imaging apparatuses. They work completely independent from human operators so they can function longer, deeper than divers can, basically. So this gives us a tool to map large chunks of the sea bed that until now is largely undocumented. but again, we should not discount the value of actually bringing archaeologists down to the site to experience the site and to come to grips with it.
For this, there is development of rebreathers, which is a technology that recycles air and filters out the bad gases and this allows divers to stay much longer underwater and go much deeper again. What about technologies above water? How is that developing?
AMELIA ASTLEY: Well, as you said, there’s been in the past few two decades, a huge increase in the amount of technology that has been used in maritime archaeology and whilst I don’t know if there will be any huge new innovations in our lifetime, we can certainly see the incorporation of other technologies which have been around for a bit of time but maybe haven’t been optimised or fully used by maritime archaeologists, so things like 3D printing and the visualisation using computer software, I think will really take off over the next few decades.
I can see them being more involved as well through outreach projects, as they offer those that are going along to projects a really tangible item that they can hold and look at, whereas images of site plans are not so tangible to people. I can also see a lot of the technology that’s coming in is from disciplines outside of maritime archaeology and so I think it’s really important that maritime archaeologists collaborate with other industries and an example of this is the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute and they’ve had a really great initiative to try and get all those different bodies talking to each other, which I think is really important. What about you Peter?
What do you see the future of archaeology being as?
PETER CAMPBELL: I think more and more people are going to start taking part in underwater exploration. Crowd sourcing has started growing in archaeology and maritime archaeology; programmes like MicroPast, the Big Anchor Project and the Google Earth Abandoned Ship Database. This course is a great example of how maritime archaeology is expanding to include more people and get people involved. I think, in the future, projects will use online platforms to engage people and help break the data collection into smaller and smaller pieces.
THOMAS DHOOP: So next to technology and people, what do you think is left to discover underwater?
PETER CAMPBELL: I think that we’re in a golden age of underwater exploration and there is so much left to be found.
CRYSTAL SAFADI: And I think that every work and every site that we find actually will change our understanding of the past just as it has been the way so far.
THOMAS DHOOP: I think it will do it small bits at a time, excavation per excavation but we shouldn’t really be expecting these large Tutankhamun moments anymore.
AMELIA ASTLEY: There have been comparison drawn with, say, the petroleum industry as well and apparently, we’ve reached our peak on how many finds that we are ever going to have, so I see it tailing off a bit but again, with technologies, there will still be some finds but I don’t think there’ll be anything as significant as we’ve already had, unfortunately.
PETER CAMPBELL: Well, finds of shipwrecks peaked in the ’70s, however, there’s so much left to find, not just shipwrecks but submerged landscapes, pillar landscapes, underwater cities. I think that there’s an inordinate amount of things left to find, some of their most important finds in the history of archaeology. In a hundred years people won’t be talking about Tutankhamun or of Machu Picchu, they’ll be talking about the things that we’re going to find in the next five to 10 years.
THOMAS DHOOP: That might be true and as the economy picks back up and more and more building projects develop, perhaps this lump in shipwrecks and underwater sites will actually be just a minor bump in the record.
PETER CAMPBELL: Well, we’re going deeper, we have better technology, we can do more and we have more people that are trained and more people looking. I think that the best is yet to come. So what do you all think? Please share what you think about the future of underwater archaeology in the comments.
In this step Peter Campbell, Crystal Safadi, Thomas Dhoop, and Amelia Astley discuss four trajectories for the future of maritime archaeology:
  • people
  • underwater technology
  • applications of new scientific techniques
  • public platforms for exploration.
The panel then debates what is left to find in our oceans.
The future of maritime archaeology lies in people. Much of maritime archaeology is currently based in countries like Great Britain, the United States, and Australia, with researchers working elsewhere around the world. In parts of the world where maritime archaeology is relatively nascent, it is particularly important to encourage interest in the subject, build capacity, and essentially get more people involved. There are currently programmes in place to train archaeologists and divers in every country, such as initiatives by the Honor Frost Foundation and the UNESCO Unitwin Underwater Archaeology Network, as well as training by the Nautical Archaeology Society. The key step to be undertaken is promoting local professional maritime archaeologists who are capable of managing and preserving the maritime cultural heritage of their countries.
Underwater Technology
Two major leaps forward have been made in the way we do maritime archaeology underwater. The first is the growing use of autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs. These robots, equipped with digital underwater imaging apparatuses, can survey the seafloor independently, without needing to be controlled by a human operator. They can go deeper and stay in the water longer than divers, giving us a tool to map massive chunks of the seabed that is still largely undocumented. However we should not discount the value of maritime archaeologists physically visiting and experiencing the site firsthand. Using rebreather technology, devices that recycle air and filter out bad gasses, divers can now go deeper and stay underwater longer than before.
Today, these technologies are already being deployed in Crete in the search for shipwrecks of the enigmatic, but so far elusive, Minoans who ruled the Aegean Sea more than 3000 years ago.
Applications of Science and Interdisciplinary Technology
Whilst over the past few decades the pace at which technology has advanced is unprecedented and perhaps unlikely to be seen again in our lifetime, we are still certain to see some new advancements in tools which can aid the interpretation of maritime archaeology sites.
Often with the development of new technologies it takes time to fully realise their potential. A good example of this is 3D printing. With 3D printing we are now able to create models of ships, scaled individual timbers and other artefacts. We are also able to visually reconstruct ships and their contents using computer software. These tools can be used to predict how sites have changed, both recently and far into the past (e.g. with the rise and fall of sea levels and predictions of past environmental conditions such as waves and winds) and how they may change in the future. These tangible objects can be used as powerful aids in public engagement.
New technologies are often developed outside of the archaeological world only later to be incorporated into archaeological research. Technology is often therefore a connection between different disciplines. Archaeologists are more able to make the most of archaeological resources through collaboration with different disciplines and faculties, such as the work carried out by the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute.
Public Platforms for Exploration
In the future more and more people will take part in underwater exploration. Crowd sourcing has started to grow in archaeology, such as Micropasts, the Big Anchor Project, and the GoogleEarth abandoned shipwrecks database. The internet allows for everyone to get involved and soon projects will be run through online platforms. Community-based websites like MaritimeArchaeology.com act as frameworks to connect people and projects, allowing contributions to be made by all.
This course is an example of how maritime archaeology can expand to reach more people. In the future more and more aspects of exploration will be parceled out to interested parties, from survey and exploration to documentation and excavation to finally research and publication. At the end of this course is a list of university programs and field schools if you would like to get more involved.
What is left to find under the world’s oceans?
Maritime archaeologists Donald Keith and Toni Carrell conducted an interesting study that found shipwreck finds peaked during the 1970s and have declined ever since. Combined with widespread looting of archaeological sites by treasure hunters and tourists, many sites are disappearing and some are lost forever.
On the other side of the debate, the last few years have seen incredible discoveries that are rewriting history books. The oldest submerged city in the world was identified in 2009 at Pavlopetri in Greece. The first ancient naval battlefield was not discovered until 2008. In 2003 a fully intact ancient Greek merchant ship was found in the anoxic deep waters of the Black Sea, so complete that its mast is still standing upright. Similar, the cold fresh water of the Baltic Sea has revealed incredible ghost ships that likewise have perfect preservation; many have been discovered in the last five years.
As technology improves resolution and depth ability, more and higher quality discoveries will be made. While fewer shipwrecks are being found, the scientific quality of shipwrecks is improving and more paleolandscapes and sunken cities are being identified. What is left to be found? We have an extensive wish list for discoveries that could change what we know about the past: a Viking shipwreck in North America, one of the massive Chinese ships that would have dwarfed the European Age of Discovery ships, or a Paleolithic cave with evidence of everyday life perfectly preserved by sea level change. What discoveries would you like to find?
We are currently in a golden age of underwater exploration. Arguably in a hundred years people will be not be discussing the great land discoveries of the 19th and early 20th centuries like Tutankhamen or Machu Picchu, but the fantastic underwater discoveries we will make in the next fifty years.
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Shipwrecks and Submerged Worlds: Maritime Archaeology

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