Digging the Deep Blue: Challenges and Triumphs in Underwater Archaeology
Archaeology, the scientific study of human history and prehistory through the excavation and analysis of artifacts and other physical remains, has greatly evolved over time, providing a window onto the historic development of civilizations. From its crude beginnings to the current use of advanced technology, archaeology has allowed us to unlock many secrets of our past. However, one branch of archaeology that has been particularly challenging is underwater archaeology.
Undertaking archaeology underwater is a difficult and demanding task. It involves the excavation of submerged remains such as shipwrecks, sunken cities and other ancient artifacts. This branch of archaeology requires specialized equipment and techniques to access and recover artifacts, often in conditions where visibility is limited, currents are strong, and the ocean is a constantly changing environment. Despite the challenges, underwater archaeology has yielded remarkable discoveries that have greatly enriched our understanding of human history.
Underwater archaeology involves the excavation of submerged remains, including shipwrecks, sunken cities and other ancient artifacts. Representational image of a diver with a Greek amphora. (moofushi / Adobe Stock)
Underwater Archaeology is as Difficult as It Sounds
Our planet is mostly made up of water bodies like lakes, oceans, seas, and rivers. The mysteries and secrets they hold are vast and fascinating, leaving us to wonder and speculate about what lies beneath the surface. Ancient shipwrecks, submerged settlements, deposited relics - a great deal of ancient history is hidden in these watery graves. Fortunately, archaeologists didn't limit their work to land. From the very beginning, they were determined to explore watery depths and retrieve its hidden history. However, this was never an easy task, and they faced numerous challenges along the way.
The pioneers of underwater archaeology faced immense difficulties. Deep sea diving, and diving in general, was still in its infancy during the “golden age” of archaeology in the early 20th century. Even today, underwater archaeological sites are hard to access due to the nature of seas and rivers. Underwater archaeological sites will always be difficult to access, filled with ever-present dangers.
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In the past, when the technology used for underwater archaeology was exceptionally crude, many divers lost their lives attempting to retrieve or examine ancient remains. Due to limited visibility and rising silt, especially in murky rivers, observation can be near impossible. To make things worse, once a site is observed, the rising silt may bury it once again. All these obstacles present a challenge for underwater archaeologists.
And it isn’t only the dangers of underwater exploration. Underwater archaeology is plagued by logistical challenges as well. How does one approach the excavation of immense sunken ships? Without a doubt, ancient shipwrecks are the major part of underwater recovery. Many of them have been sitting at the bottom of the sea for centuries, meaning they are fragile, waterlogged and very huge to boot.
Undertaking an underwater archaeological project presents a colossal logistical challenge. From discovery and observation to planning and excavation, the process is long and arduous. In the past, divers had to perform most of the work, despite not being trained for archaeological work. However, modern underwater archaeologists often combine their training as divers with archaeological knowledge, making their dual expertise incredibly useful.
Diving at the Dalarö wreck of a 17th century ship off the coast of Sweden. (SMTM - Ingemar Lundgren - Ocean Discovery / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Underwater Archaeology’s Reliance on Technology
In the past, discovering underwater shipwrecks relied on word of mouth or spotting them at low tide. However, modern technology has made this process much easier. With powerful tools such as sonars, remote sensing devices, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), magnetometers, remote-controlled robots and submarines, and modern scuba diving equipment, researchers can locate ancient shipwrecks with relative ease. Despite these advancements, the discovery and recovery of shipwrecks still requires time, patience and skill.
It is worth noting that many shipwrecks can end up overlooked and forgotten simply because of the dynamic and unpredictable nature of the water. Ebb and flow, tides and waves, they can all affect the remnants that lie beneath. Due to the conditions underwater, shipwrecks are not always well-preserved, and can be scattered in pieces due to the water's movements, making it difficult to identify them. Additionally, the remnants themselves are often fragile and brittle due to centuries spent submerged. Proper preservation requires careful handling and storage in a controlled environment to prevent further damage.
In certain cases, underwater archaeologists rely on the knowledge of the locals, who possess invaluable information about the water bodies that archaeologists are studying. For instance, during the excavation of multiple ancient shipwrecks in Fourni, Greece, the archaeologists worked in close collaboration with the local fishermen who provided significant assistance. Thanks to their familiarity with the waters, the archaeologists were able to discover and study a total of 23 shipwrecks. Without the assistance of the locals, such a remarkable feat would have been impossible to achieve.
The Swedish Vasa warship being brought up during recovery work in the 1960s. (Public domain)
Recovering the Relics of the Past Thanks to Underwater Archaeology
Without maritime archaeology, many wondrous shipwrecks would remain forever entombed in their watery graves. One of the most famous achievements of underwater archeologists is the recovery of the Swedish warship “Vasa”. This luxurious warship was constructed in 1627, and at the time it was the most powerfully armed vessel in the world. However, it had a number of constructional flaws, and it sank almost immediately after being launched, sailing a distance of only 1,300 meters (1420 yards).
The Vasa remained submerged at the bottom of the Stockholm harbor for centuries until maritime archaeologists recovered it in the 1960s. Remarkably intact, the ship was recovered in one piece, along with the remains of 15 individuals and thousands of artifacts.
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Another achievement of this branch of archaeology is the recovery of a Late Bronze Age shipwreck that lay submerged near Turkey’s Cape Gelidonya. It sank around 1200 BC, and lay submerged at a depth of 27 meters (89 ft). Its depth did not dissuade the discoverers, who laboriously retrieved it in 1960. They found that it was of Mycenaean Greek provenance, and was full of ancient trade goods, including merchant weights, pottery, copper and tin ingots, and copper scraps.
Another similar excavation occurred near Uluburun in Turkey. A local sponge diver discovered a massive ancient shipwreck by chance in 1982. He informed the authorities, who recognized the archaeological importance of these remains. From 1984 to 1994, eleven campaigns were conducted in attempts to salvage the ship.
In the end, the underwater archaeologists prevailed and brought to the surface a 14th century BC shipwreck which was bound for royal Mycenaean ports, filled to the brim with exquisite riches. Recovered, amongst many other things, were copper and tin ingots in great numbers, Canaanite jars, glass ingots, olive jars, African blackwood, oil lamps, cosmetics, jewels, gold, silver and many other goods. Needless to say, it was an arduous and challenging process that took many years.
Uluburun excavation images showing copper oxhide ingots. (Cemal Pulak / Texas A&M University)
The Great Importance of Maritime Archaeology
There is no doubt that maritime archaeology is a crucial branch of archaeology, offering unique insights into the past and deepening our understanding of ancient maritime voyages. By excavating shipwrecks, we learn about ancient sailing techniques, shipbuilding methods and the navigation practices of our ancestors.
More importantly, the underwater archaeologists can help with the retrieval of more modern shipwrecks, many of which are important to history due to their scale and the great loss of life experienced when they sank. Notable examples include the Titanic, the Mary Rose ship and several World War II vessels whose locations are known and documented. By recovering and researching ancient shipwrecks, archaeologists help piece together the puzzle of their sinking, and bring to the light of day the fate of these seamen and the reasons for which they perished.
Recovering shipwrecks is never a straightforward process and there isn't a universal method that works for every situation. Instead, researchers carefully study the wreck site, the condition of the remains, their position and the body of water in question before creating a plan that involves multiple steps.
In the past, a popular method for recovering shipwrecks involved two hulks, essentially ship hulls without sails, and a network of ropes with anchors. The ropes would be lowered into the water and attached to the submerged shipwreck, and then the hulls were filled with water to sink them down, while the ropes were tightened. As the water was pumped out of the hulls, they would rise up and bring the shipwreck with them. However, this was a lengthy process and success was not guaranteed.
The conserved Mary Rose shipwreck on display. (Geni / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Patient Pursuit of the Past: The Challenges of Underwater Archaeology
Over time, the techniques used to recover submerged shipwrecks have evolved significantly. The example of the Mary Rose is a testament to the numerous approaches that are now available to underwater archaeologists. This Tudor warship was sunk in battle in 1545, and its remains lay at the bottom of the Solent strait near the Isle of Wight for centuries.
It wasn't until 1982 that the fragmented hull, along with thousands of preserved items and the skeletons of many sailors, were finally recovered. The shipwreck was in such a poor state, that the process of its fragmented remains was a daunting challenge and is now regarded as one of the most complex and expensive projects in the history of underwater archaeology.
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Before even attempting the operation, archaeologists proposed many potential methods of recovery. This was a shipwreck unlike any other recovered before. If they had used a conventional method of cables and pontoons, they risked the shipwreck breaking apart before it even emerged. Some proposed the method of building a cofferdam around the wreck - an enclosure that would allow water to be pumped out there and then. Others proposed using a flotation method, which meant filling the wreck with buoyant objects in order to allow the hull to float up gently.
After months of debate by archaeologists invested in the Mary Rose project, a more solid method was agreed upon. It involved the strengthening of the hull with special steel braces and frames - basically surrounding it with a steel frame. This was then lifted carefully out of the water with floating cranes.
It was a nerve-wracking operation, which only goes to show that there are no rules in underwater archaeology. Each recovery is individual, and a story to itself. Some are simple and straightforward, while others can take years before they are completed. It all depends on the location and the state of the wreck itself.
The Great Achievements of Modern Archaeology
Undoubtedly, advancements in modern technology have revolutionized underwater archaeology, enabling us to recover and preserve sunken artifacts and ships that were once thought lost for all time. We are witnessing achievements that defy all sense of logic - the uncanny marriage of industry and archaeology that allows for recovery of enormous and delicate sunken ships. With the aid of sophisticated sonar and radar technologies, as well as cutting-edge computer systems, we have come to understand the enormity of the underwater world and the treasures it holds.
Nevertheless, we must acknowledge the human element, as none of these achievements would be possible without the tireless work of archaeologists, divers and volunteers who dedicate their time and expertise to the painstaking process of uncovering history's forgotten sunken stories. As we move forward, it is crucial to continue to support and encourage their work, so that future generations may continue to uncover and learn from our past.
Top image: Underwater archaeologists during a dive at the Alonnisos shipwreck in 2002. Source: Elpida Hadjidaki / CC BY-SA 4.0
Blakemore, E. 2 August 2019. “How underwater archaeology reveals hidden wonders” in National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/underwater-archaeology
National Ocean Service. No date. “Underwater Archeology”. Marine Protected Areas. Available at: https://marineprotectedareas.noaa.gov/toolkit/underwater-archaeology.html
Various. 2014. The Oxford Handbook of Maritime Archaeology. Oxford University Press.