Working Under Pressure: Maritime Archaeologists

Preserving history to inspire a collective identity.

Replace Indiana Jones' hat with a brass scuba helmet and his whip with an air supply, and you have a maritime archaeologist. Typically trained in scientific diving (many are even highly-trained technical divers) and equipped with an insatiable passion for wrecks, maritime history and the human connection that weaves it all together, maritime archaeologists retrieve history from the ocean floor and bring it to life once again.

"It's pretty incredible to see each artifact firsthand and recognize how it fits into the historical context," said Joe Hoyt, maritime archaeologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Monitor National Marine Sanctuary in Newport News, Va. "For instance, in 1854 the Defiance sank in Thunder Bay [Lake Huron] in about 200 feet of water, and it still looks like it could sail today. During our fieldwork, we were doing our decompression stops on the intact masts of one of the early workhorses of the American industrial supereconomy."

An archaeological project is a three-stage process that starts long before the fieldwork. During the first stage, the research design stage, the archaeologist must define the scope of the project by determining the driving question and the process he wants to apply to answer it. This stage involves extensive research, reading and planning to determine the methodology and field components of the project. Grant writing and proposal drafts generally follow to seek out the much-needed expedition funding.

After the background research is complete and the funding is secured, the fieldwork begins. In many cases the archaeologist has precise site coordinates, but sometimes he may know only the general area. If the exact location is unknown, his research is largely dedicated to collecting data to narrow the search radius. Then using technology such as a side-scan sonar system or a magnetometer, he can take to the sea by boat and scan the narrowed range in hopes of finding the wreck.

These U-boats are part of a massive research project of World War II
shipwrecks from the Battle of the Atlantic off the coast of North Carolina.


"You go up and down, basically like mowing a lawn, and hopefully you'll go over the site," Hoyt explained. "If you do, you'll see the wreck on a computer screen, and then you go back and do a more detailed survey." These surveys involve a lot of diving to develop an overall image of the site and establish a permanent record of it using photography, video logs and even baseline measurements used to draw a map.

In order to create an overall image of a wreck, archaeologists stitch together multiple photos creating a photomosaic, like this one of the U-85; this surveying practice creates a permanent record of the site an may be used as an educational tool.

After the fieldwork, the archaeological team comes to shore to put together all it has learned into a format that can be shared. Whether presentations, publications, videos or photographs, the ultimate goal is to share this new piece of history or newly discovered methodology with the public to inspire a sense of collective identity and a passionate interest in ocean conservation.
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© Alert Diver — Winter 2011