Maritime Archaeology And Cultural Heritage

It was one of the biggest excavations in Istanbul, and they were trying to dig a tunnel for railroad when they come across what was use to be a Theodosian Harbour, the largest harbour in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. They discovered among other things 37 well preserved shipwrecks dating from the 5th to 11th centuries AD (Kiziltan, 2013, p.3).

Over the course of more than three full years working at the site, the INA team developed a standard set of techniques appropriate for the work environment of Yenikapi.

Early in the project it was decided to map and dismantle the shipwreck rather than attempt to remove the hulls from the site in one piece, which would require heavy equipment, more elaborate storage facilities, and would not allow the exhaustive documentation that is possible with full dismantling(Pulak, Ingram, and Jones, 2015, p.42).

Already there is an emphasis on creating a team that can complete the job, in the most meticulous manner. But what we are trying to do here is complete opposite, and that is to ask ourselves how this site would have look like if there was no adequate understanding for the importance of the archaeological material.

There are two options how this could be solved, and the first one is giving to a maritime archaeologist to form a plan and method how to approach this assignment, if there is no such expert presented in their staff, then the next logical solution is to hire someone who can perform the task. That was the case with Yenikapi excavations, where the team from INA arrived, and they have constructed the plan how to properly document and excavate shipwreck remains (Figure 2).

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The problem could be created if after realisation that they don’t have an expert in their team for such job, but they simply decided to do it by themselves, without any prior knowledge and experience. There is a specific set of rules when we are excavating and documenting a shipwreck. Recognizing the orientation, the state of the ship, what is missing and how to measure each part of it. And most importantly how to preserve it and make it perfect for the museum exhibitions.

Another thing that needs to be discussed is the location of the site. Can it be considered as a maritime archaeological site, well answer is yes. That is so because maritime archaeology is an area of study that is wide enough, which involves not only sites that are located underwater, but everything that can be connected with the context of maritime customs and maritime civilizations. Is it necessary to separate and look at them like they are two different view, or maybe there can be find some agreement between the two. They are complementary, and they are most efficient when combined in one purpose, and that is the quality of the data, and how to interpret that into a compelling story about the human past that is now discovered, after all that work.

Despite intensive exchange of personnel, techniques, and ideas and despite considerable overlap and integration, Maarleveld(2014, p.924) thinks that it is realistic to distinguish between four different traditions in which maritime archaeology and the management of underwater sites took root: Mediterranean tradition, the northern European tradition, the “cultural resource management” tradition, and the tradition of maritime historical exploration that informed major projects such as those relating to wrecks of Vasa, Mary Rose, H.L. Hunley. The different traditions have their own way of traditional thinking. They have their own views what is important and what not, they have their own views on such issues as the role of avocational in archaeology (Maarleveld 1993). But what is mentioned and that is important to accept is that all four of traditions are converging. That convergence is important when trying to find common ground, at least when we talk about professional ethics.

Conservation and protection

Everything that was said earlier brought us to our next section, and that is conservation and protection of underwater cultural heritage. The most delicate, and relevant part of management, where everything that was done before serves to our main goal and that is, that we are trying to create something that can withstand the test of time and be represented to the public in the best way possible. We all know that excavation is in its own way destruction of the site. And there were a lot of debates if that was the right method, or do we have to find more suitable solution for this problem. How to preserve something without disrupting the original condition, and at the same time protecting it from all the misfortunes that could happened. In situ conservation represents a viable and increasingly acceptable alternative to the essentially destructive practice of excavation, allowing some archaeological sites, or parts thereof, to be protected from deterioration processes.

On-site artefact deterioration can be slowed by remedial actions based on knowledge of physical, biological, and chemical processes that can be reduced or eliminated (Oxley and Gregory 2002, p.720). Informal site management techniques are reburying the excavated site, or placing artificial sea grasses with extended fronds design to stick to the site during strong currents, and water knows to slow down because of this, so direct power of the water is reduced. All of this is done because expenses can be huge, and it is hard to find enough funding for the entire excavation. Documentation and preservation are the cheapest solutions, and it prepares the site for the future generations to come.

On the other hand, Maritime archaeology is the one field of archaeology that is completely tied to the conservation laboratory. Without the efforts of trained laboratory personnel, underwater field excavations would be for naught; indeed, the success of every underwater project whether maritime, nautical, freshwater, or saltwater is dependent on properly treating the recovered artefacts so that they can be studied and eventually displayed in a museum in order to tell the story behind an excavation (Hamilton and Smith 2014, p.286). That being said, conservation as a skill from a perspective of maritime archaeologist is not something that is required to know as an expert, but, first aid conservation is a crucial part of one’s knowledge. With this, we know how to react fast, and accordingly. Again, we are returning to our previous statement that if we want to be involved in management of underwater cultural heritage, then our skill sets needs to be fully developed.

With the advancements in technology, conservation becomes more versatile and our options are wide spread. And this is positive, because overall ideology of archaeological sites is that we should use more and more non intrusive approaches. It makes job more productive, but at the same time this demands more skills, wider knowledge an implementation of different types of techniques.

Skills and equipment for management of UCH

Somehow skills and equipment in this case can only be looked in unified context. Because they are intertwined, and one cannot exist without the other. Diving as a starting point is indispensable part of the skill/equipment. Sites can be located only 2 or 3 meters in shallow water, but it also could be on the depth of more than 100 meters. Obviously the location and the condition dictates how our plan will be constructed and how shall we perform the investigation. If the site is located in the shallower water, then it is easily approachable, and we can do the diving, photographing, measuring and maybe after all of that is done, start retrieving some pieces from the seabed to the surface. If it is other way around, deep site, cold water, lack of people who can participate in the excavation, in that case plan will change. Project will probably be more expensive, because now we need better equipment. We need different diving suits, experts who can dive in those depths, renting boat, equipment such as ROV, AUV, and Side scan sonar, etc. There is a constant risk, safety of the crew is in the first place but it is not 100 percent safe.

Just in this example we can notice that everything depends from location, and if we have enough funding to finish the project. In both these cases, two different backgrounds in maritime archaeology are needed. Besides remote sensing, which was a huge upgrade in surveying underwater cultural landscapes, possibility to create 3D models of an archaeological site created big turning point in the way how we present our work. Because that is the final product of one archaeological excavation, the book, catalogue, presentation, article, museum exhibition. Computer modelling, simulation, and virtual reality visualization have become an important part of the maritime archaeologist’s interpretative skill set. The increasing use of interactive 3D computer graphics technologies for the study, teaching, and dissemination of maritime archaeological information follows their acceptance by the broader discipline of virtual heritage (Sanders, 2014, p.320).

The 3D reconstruction particularly comes in handy in the case of a site, which is located in a place where we cannot spend too much time, but there is time for taking some photographs and later creating 3D model from which we can do the digital reconstruction and interpretation(Figure 4). Further we go, it’s more obvious how important is to have a background in maritime archaeology.

Usually in the past, the main skills set was diving, and because courses and programmes for maritime archaeology did not existed, diving was sufficient to get you started and to go from there on. In the mean time things have changed, for better of course. The field is developing, and it is becoming more and more demanding, regarding the work performed on an excavation site. Now first, we need to understand all the processes that are part of maritime archaeology. From desk based research, to knowing the excavation goal, diving, use of GPS, Remote sensing, Camera, handling the artefacts and giving the first aid treatment, and after everything is finished, knowing how to interpret the information and make it presentable for the public.


Background in maritime archaeology and how it affects the management in underwater cultural heritage, that was the main question of this paper. And the idea was just to try to give an overview how things are working in this field, but with a huge accent on experience, skill set and knowledge. The reason why we are focusing on this is because they are the answer to the proposed question. Throughout this paper, we had an opportunity to get ourselves familiar with some areas of studies which are showing precisely what we wanted to find out, the grand scale and complexity of the work. However, just to make things clear enough, everything that was mentioned here is not set in stone, and it is constantly evolving and progressing. But although things change, some of them are more or less the same. And that is the need for experience, and accumulated knowledge.

That is the purpose of participating in an archaeological project. When this is missing, we are losing something that is valuable for us as scientists, and that is, a different perspective. As we are getting to learn new things, we are widening our point of view, and that can offer more solutions to a given problem. If we are lacking experience in any field, not just archaeology, then we cannot be confident enough, and if we don’t believe in our decisions then that is a major problem. But what is obvious, is that we need to start from somewhere, and gradually building our knowledge and experience level, and as the time goes by everything will come to its place. Why are we saying all of this, because handling with underwater cultural heritage is one delicate and specific subject, in which background is the most important part.

Diving, conservation, 3D modelling is not something that we can come across outside maritime archaeology. Maybe individually one at the time, but they are all combined in this one area of study. That is what makes it different and special, the mixture of all these skills. In any other case, giving someone to lead a project without all this prior knowledge is irresponsible. And probably that was something that could happen before when maritime archaeology was just starting to come out from its shell, but in today’s world it is hardly to expect such outcome. The final goal of this paper is to emphasize the role of maritime archaeologist in today’s society, and that it is not something that can be done by scholars from some other scientific disciplines, although collaboration can be useful and it is recommendable. It has to be looked upon as an area of study that holds criteria, that dictates high quality level of data recovered and plausibility of interpretation that at the end is presented to the public.

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Maritime Archaeology And Cultural Heritage. (2022, Jul 15). Retrieved from

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