Maritime archeologists document the Montana, a wreck in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which protects many shipwrecks within the Great Lakes. Image courtesy of Tane Casserley/NOAA, Thunder Bay NMS.
Humans, ships, and the ocean have always been bound together. In the ancient world, ocean transportation was the safest, fastest, and most economical method to move goods, people, and ideas from one place to another. Even today, many goods are transported by ship. However, the ocean can be an unforgiving place and inevitably, some percentage of voyages ended in shipwreck.
Shipwrecks are a random sample of voyages, a record of past trade and communication. Unlike elaborately contrived sites such as graves and temples, shipwrecks are accidental and therefore show the past as it really was. One way to think about shipwrecks is that they are like car accidents at sea, but with no tow trucks to remove the wreckage.
Archeologists use shipwrecks to understand the past. Shipwrecks may be connected to important historical events. People working to protect the marine environment can learn important lessons from shipwrecks about how currents, weather, technology and human error can damage the environment. Additionally, shipwrecks can provide hard surfaces that may be associated with a high biomass of biologically diverse organisms for study.
In recent years, scuba-diving archaeologists have made terrific discoveries by excavating shipwrecks in shallow water. Their work has delivered a better picture of the ancient world. However, scuba diving is generally limited to water shallower than 50 meters (150 feet). That means that only about two percent of the sea floor is within reach, and therefore we may only be seeing a small percent of all shipwrecks.
Looking in deep water can also reveal clues about different types of vessels that may not have regularly traveled into shallow waters, but were important for communication and trade. Research indicates that even as recently as the middle of the 19th century, nearly 20 percent of shipwrecks occurred in deep water, away from shore. By comparing deep-water and shallow-water wrecks with information from land excavations, archaeologists can build a new understanding of the ancient world.
Advanced technologies are critical to conducting science in great depths of water. Over the years, NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research has supported several expeditions to test and improve technologies used to conduct deep-water archaeological investigations. Technologies such as robotic vehicles can save time, increase the safety of some operations by keeping divers out of harm’s way, and allow us to explore things we never could before.
By combining deep-water archaeological technology and methods with standard archaeological diving practices, archaeologists can dedicate more time to the analysis and interpretation of shipwreck sites. Deep-water archaeology offers new ways of doing archaeology, while presenting entirely different types of information about the ancient world. It may be that through the study of deep-water shipwrecks, we can glimpse the prehistoric moment when civilization crystallized and the modern world began.
This Old Ship (pdf, 272 kb)