1978 to present day: Muckelroy and Maritime Archaeology

Keith Muckelroy and Maritime Archaeology

Muckelroy 1978

It’s hard to conceive of the numerous ways in which our world has changed since 1978. We’ve seen the rise and fall of technologies (VHS tapes, audio cassettes) the transformation of global politics (the fall of the Berlin Wall) and the emergence of new ways of communicating via the web. Even within the relatively small field of maritime archaeology there have been dramatic advancements: new technologies (multibeam bathymetry, synthetic aperture sonar, Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs)) and new ideas about how to understand the past. These matched with a constant flow of exciting new discoveries have served to transform the subject. Yet, after all this change, we are still recommending to people on courses in the 21st century that they read a book published in 1978, Maritime Archaeology by Keith Muckelroy … how can this be so?

Well, there are in fact numerous reasons. Most academic fields can point to texts that have stood the test of time, due to the fundamental issues addressed. This is certainly the case with Maritime Archaeology. Here we find careful consideration as to what Maritime Archaeology is, its scope and, perhaps most importantly, its potential. Muckelroy was writing at a time when there had already been significant progress in advancing archaeology under water. George Bass’s work at Cape Gelidonya had clearly demonstrated how meticulous excavation of submerged shipwrecks could revolutionise our understanding of key archaeological questions. There was even a burgeoning archaeological literature, across the globe, that pointed to a nascent discipline.

However, much of the work being carried out was seen to fall within very specific domains of knowledge (nautical archaeology, marine archaeology etc.) or related to what were thought to be exceptional sites. Muckelroy’s inspired step was to deliberately look more broadly, defining ‘Maritime Archaeology’ as:

“the scientific study of the material remains of man and his activities on the sea”
(1978, 4)

While today we’d certainly look to remove the gender bias from this definition, we can still pick out the breadth of its scope. For Muckelroy (indeed, as it had been for Bass and many others), maritime archaeology was about more than just shipwrecks. One of the important features of his book is that he makes this clear from the start, and then goes on to explain how bringing in the breadth of evidence for maritime activity in the past helps to create an improved understanding of history.

Again, there is impressive work in the detail. If you browse through the chapters of Maritime Archaeology you can learn about the scope of the discipline, issues with working underwater and the importance of studying ships and boats. Beyond this you can also see the importance of theory and scientific method to the study of the past, along with a consideration of the physical characteristics of sites. This is all wrapped up with an attempt to draw the different strands back together to move understanding forward, and (crucially) generate new questions.

It is for this last point that Maritime Archaeology remains a key text today. Muckelroy saw himself as writing at the very beginning of a new field of study. In the preface to the volume he thanks Margaret Rule and Professors Grahame Clark, George Bass, Ian Hodder, Glyn Daniel and Dr David Clarke, stating:

“I must express my gratitude to all the lecturers and supervisors … who were prepared to devote time and energy to my education, despite my addiction to a specialism of dubious respectability and uncertain validity”
(1978, ix)

However, through forcing people to think about the questions they could answer via maritime remains, and the need for an exacting approach to the past, Muckelroy ensured that Maritime Archaeology in the UK became both respectable and valued. He also ensured that some of the broader questions and ideas he touched on in the volume may never truly be answered.  This serves to push the discipline on, looking for improved techniques, datasets and ideas to help us resolve questions about the past.

Maritime Archaeology is thus not a new book, and nor do I agree with everything that is written in it (but, I don’t suppose Muckelroy would have wanted that to be the case). However, it does still have relevance, helping us to chart how far we have come, and how much further we need to go.

Finally, I realise this is a very Eurocentric point of view. One of the things that has been exciting all the team working on our new online course has been how views from across the world can be shared. As such, it’d be very interesting to hear what books have come to the fore in different regions.

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