Have you found any gold yet? Misconceptions in Maritime Archaeology

Any field of work attracts misconceptions, but the romance and mystery of maritime archaeology provides the perfect bed for a wide range of assumptions about what maritime archaeology covers, what we can learn through the material record and how we go about making discoveries.

What we aren’t

Maritime archaeology is the study of people’s changing relationship with the sea and connected waterways through material they left behind. As we will see over the coming weeks, this is a broad subject that sees a great deal of different objects and environments falling within our scope of study. However, there are some common misconceptions about where archaeology ends and palaeontology and marine biology begin.

Archaeologists do not study dinosaurs. Some archaeologists, called zooarchaeologists, study the relationship between animals and people through animal bones but even they don’t study dinosaurs. This is because the last of the dinosaurs died about 65 million years ago and the first of the hominids (our human like ancestors) didn’t live until about 5 million years ago. The two could not have overlapped. However, don’t be embarrassed if you thought archaeology might include dinosaurs – it’s a common misconception.

Likewise, while maritime archaeologists do study marine flora and fauna, it is often for different reasons to marine biologists and ecologists, although there is sometimes considerable overlap. For example, we may be interested in what the different sorts of fish preserved on a coastal site indicate about past fishing activities and technology, while ecologists may be interested in what this data tells us about changing distributions of fish species. Equally sea life will often use shipwrecks and submerged sites as artificial reefs. Here we would work with marine biologists and ecologists to study the life present to see if it were impacting on the site in a positive or negative manner.

Finally, the most important thing we are not is motivated by profit through sale of artefacts recovered from the seabed. Tales of sunken gold and treasure chests filled with relics may sound exciting but, for us, the real interest lies in what these materials (in relation to the other finds made on a site, and our broader understanding of the society that was transporting them), tell us about people in the past. We can only gain this understanding if we carefully excavate a site and study the materials recovered as a whole (what we call an assemblage).  Archaeologists work to the principle that the material we recover is the world’s heritage, it is not ours to sell and profit from. Instead we entrust the material recovered to national agencies and museums to allow public access, and to ensure that the entire assemblage remains complete for future study. To some this may sound dull, but we hope we can convince you through this course that what we are is much more exciting than what we are not.

How do we discover things?

You might be surprised the find out that not all maritime archaeology involves diving. There are many different ways that maritime archaeologists can work, often on land, based on boats and frequently making use of advanced computer software. Some sites associated with the sea (such as ports, harbours and anchorages) are intertidal or fully on land, and here we work as any other archaeologist (although perhaps in muddier conditions). As we’ll explore in week two, many of our most exciting discoveries are first made by use of remote sensing technologies that help us to survey large areas of the worlds oceans and seas without getting our feet wet. Other maritime archaeologists work in laboratories, in museums or on public engagement programmes. As such, maritime archaeology is accessible to anyone with an interest, not only those who have a diving qualification.

Southampton maritime archaeology students augering
Southampton maritime archaeology students augering

So what are maritime archaeologists?

George Bass, one of the pioneers of maritime archaeology, famously wrote that how we get to site is unimportant, it’s what we do when we get there that matters. Thus for Bass learning to dive in order to access the shipwrecks he was interested in was just like learning to drive a 4×4 to visit sites in the mountains. So, maritime archaeologists are archaeologists who have developed interests in questions regarding people’s activity on and around the world’s oceans and seas, and who have acquired the skills to answer them. In light of this, we hope that through this course we help many of you to become maritime archaeologists, through fostering your interests and helping you understand how to find out more.


Danielle Newman

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