Archaeology in unusual places (1/4)

When I say “archaeologist” to most of the people I meet, the usual response ranges from “Indiana Jones” to “digging in fields” to “Pardon?” or even “Do I know you?”. By and large, almost every response reveals one common thing: digging from the surface, down.

Now, don’t get me wrong, lots of archaeology does rely on looking at where people lived and died, but here’s the thing that’s true about humans the world over, no matter when they lived:

Humans go everywhere.

Dark, dank cave? They’re in there. Seas or lakes? They’re getting boats ready to go. Dangerously high mountains where the air’s too thin and it’s easy to freeze to death? Too late, the humans are up there and they think the views very pretty indeed, thank you for asking.

Accidents happen, shipwrecks occur, sometimes things are built. Whatever the reason, humans leave a mark, and those marks are siren calls to archaeologists aching to understand why.

So let’s start with one of these unusual places: Underwater.

Marine Archaeology deals with this place. It’s one of the youngest branches of the profession, starting in the 1960s. Don’t get me wrong, people have known all about shipwrecks and submerged cities long before then but they lacked the gear necessary to really explore them. What’s more, they were rarely concerned about the context of what they found. Was it in a boat (i.e.: cargo)? Was it on it’s own (i.e.: dropped from a boat)? Or was it half buried in the sand (i.e.: overtaken by rising sea levels)?

Like any young profession, marine archaeology in the 60s was having to learn as it went. There were no guidelines, no real tools for what they were doing; the most they could do was take what was used on the surface and apply it as best they could. Mapping a large area underwater is hard. It’s easy to lose where you are, especially if the visibility’s awful. You’re hampered by your gear and buffeted by the currents. And you may even attract some gawkers.

What’cha doing? (Image credit:

Nowadays, marine archaeologists have a good grounding in what they can do and how to do it. That’s the beauty of this field. We learn quick. Sonar and other forms of scanning are used to map the seafloor before excavation begins; this allows the archaeologists to get a better idea of what’s happening down there. If they know ahead of time where the biggest assemblages are, they can work out where to focus attention and what they should expect to see down there. They can get an idea of the limits of the site, so they can tell whether they have enough time of people to do the whole thing, or if they need to apply for more funding and longer permits. Most of the “digging” is done using a vacuum, which whisks away the sand and dumps it a short distance away. Large areas can be cleaned quickly with this tool, without damaging the archaeology or the environment around it. Then, the finds are drawn in-situ with gridlines, just like on land (except this waterproof paper and pencils).

A diver tidies up ready for a photo, note the white tags, which are context numbers given to different features (Image Credit:

There are difficulties, of course. One of them is something every diver has to deal with at certain points. Some sites are deep. Like, deep deep. So deep, that the pressure of all the water on top of them really affects human and artefact alike. When raising objects to the surface, or when coming up themselves, divers have to go up in stages and wait at certain depths for their bodies (and artefacts) to adjust properly. If they go to fast, the object could break. Worst, they could get really ill. The Bends is another term for Decompression Sickness, when divers rise to quickly from depths of around 10m or more, the excess nitrogen that’s combined in their blood will rapidly turn back into gas. Like a can of lemonade being opened. When that’s in the human body, the results can range from dangerous to deadly.

On the more mundane side of things, archaeologists need to navigate a series of permits and permissions that can be more strict than anything faced on land. Marine Wildlife reserves are often founded around coral reefs, which themselves can form on shipwrecked vessels. Even without corals, many wrecks are a safe haven for young fish and other wildlife, which many be just as protected. Archaeologists are also in a race against wreck salvage crews; some may be interested in recording what they find and where it came from, but these are usually to prove the provenance of their wares in auction, not to publish for other scholars. Usually, crews guard the location of sites to protect their claim to the finds and prevent rivals from diving for their “treasure”. Sometimes, salvage crews don’t record anything about the wreck or area they take items from at all, leaving archaeologists to deal with a disturbed site, missing important information that could help them piece together the truth about the people who sank (or lived) there. Occasionally, salvage crews don’t even bother to get permission before they dive, effectively stealing a nation’s heritage and ruining any chances of archaeological excavation by their smash-and-grab tactics. Fortunately, these are rare enough that any cases taken to court hit the news.

An Egyptian stela with hieroglyphs, now in the British Museum (Image Credit:

Luckily, Marine Archaeology has quickly grown into an internationally reknown and respected profession, with experts across the globe. I may never have worked on such a “dig” myself, but damn it looks cool. Doesn’t it?

(Image Credit:

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