Underwater Archaeology: Maritime Archaeology

Underwater archaeology or maritime archaeology is the most adventurous subfield in archaeology. In this article, the discussion will continue under the following topics:

  1. Introduction to underwater archaeology
    • definition of underwater archaeology
    • underwater archaeology, maritime archaeology, marine archaeology, and nautical archaeology
    • study area in underwater archaeology
    • study method in underwater archaeology
  2. The importance of underwater archaeology
  3. Origin and history of underwater archaeology
  4. Pioneers and famous underwater archaeologists
  5. Underwater archaeological sites

Introduction to Underwater Archaeology or Maritime Archaeology

Definition of Underwater Archaeology

Underwater archaeology is the branch of archaeology that studies archaeological sites and archaeological records in aquatic environments.

As we already know, archaeological sites are the places on earth from which we acquire archaeological data, and we use archaeological data to study the human past. Some archaeological sites are in aquatic environments, while others are in inland areas. Aquatic environments mean any place on earth that is submerged in water or related to any water body. That includes places such as the sea, ocean, lake, river, bay, swamp, irrigation water bodies, etc. This means underwater archaeology is not limited to sites that are submerged in water but also extends to any sites related to water bodies on earth, such as coastal lines, river banks, floodplains, etc.

Simply put, the branch of archaeology that is specially designed to conduct archaeological studies in aquatic environments is underwater archaeology.

What is underwater archaeology, what is maritime archaeology, what is marine archaeology and what is nautical archaeology?

There are several terms in use to refer to or be related to underwater archaeology: maritime archaeology, marine archaeology, and nautical archaeology.

The application of these terms can be quite confusing. That is because, at the beginning of underwater archaeology, it focused on oceanic areas only. Therefore, practically, maritime archaeology and marine archaeology were synonyms for underwater archaeology at the time.

Then, as the discipline developed, studies about other aquatic environments were introduced. So, now, underwater archaeological studies are conducted on both seawater and fresh water in both oceanic and inland water bodies such as rivers and lakes. Hence, technically, the use of maritime or marine as synonyms for underwater archaeology is inappropriate.

In fact, underwater archaeology is the branch that deals with aquatic environments in archaeology, and maritime archaeology is a further division of underwater archaeology, which only deals with the sea and ocean. Marine archaeology is just a synonym for maritime archaeology. But some people still prefer to use maritime archaeology or marine archaeology as synonyms for underwater archaeology. Therefore, we need to go further and check what someone might have meant by it when using maritime archaeology or marine archaeology.

However, nautical archaeology emerged as the branch of archaeology that deals with archaeological records found beneath the sea. In this branch, we find archaeological remains such as shipwrecks as well as submerged islands in the sea.

In summary, underwater archaeology is the study of aquatic environments for archaeological data on the human past. And nautical archaeology is definitely a branch of underwater archaeology, while maritime and marine archaeology may use both terms, either to refer to underwater archaeology or to nautical archaeology.

What do we study in underwater archaeology?

As is obvious, the study area or study material does not change in underwater archaeology from that of archaeology. The aim is also to study past human culture, behaviour, and cognition through material remains left from the past. The specialty here is that the material remains we talk about here come from aquatic environments and therefore underwater archaeology is specifically designed to achieve that.

Despite the common goal as a branch of archaeology, underwater archaeology has unique aims in terms of research. Specifically, we study several important aspects of past human culture, such as trade, water transport, costal resource use, and naval activities.

How do we study underwater archaeology?

Just as archaeological research in inland archaeological studies consists of survey and excavation, that is how we gather data for underwater archaeological studies. Specifically designed underwater reconnaissance and underwater excavations facilitate data retrieval. Then, the study continues the same as usual archaeological study. The preservation and conservation of material remains discovered at underwater sites are also sophisticated accordingly. Some material remains are retrieved from the sites and preserved in museums, while others, such as features and structures, are preserved on site. In short, there are sophisticated theories, methods, and techniques for underwater exploration, excavation, and preservation.

Importance of Underwater Archaeology

Basically, as you already know, underwater archaeology is important because of the same reasons that archaeology is important. Archaeology is the study of past human culture, behaviour, and cognition through material remains left from the past. In underwater archaeology, we basically do the same. Apart from this basic reason, there are several unique characteristics or reasons for underwater archaeology to be significant.

1. The only scientific discipline specialising in studying aquatic environments to study the human past

Even though we humans are not aquatic species, human activities are not limited to the inlands. Also, some of the ancient land masses, such as the Dwarka archaeological site, are now submerged in water bodies such as the sea, lakes, rivers, etc. So, underwater archaeology comes with specifically designed methods and techniques of reconnaissance, excavation, recording, and conservation, aiming to deal with these aquatic environments in the quest to study the human past. It studies how humans in the past interacted with aquatic environments in aspects such as trade, water transport, oceanic resource usage, naval activities, etc. This is the major reason why underwater archaeology is important.

2. Provides irreplaceable data about the past

In the overall studies of archaeology, underwater archaeology contributes with rare and unique data about the past. For instance, a shipwreck can reveal a history of naval activities that has no historical records. And a sunken landmass due to the sessmic activities can reveal paleoenvironments, palaeoclimate, ancient land use patterns, ancient migration patterns, and many more. All of this data may not be able to be obtained by any other means than underwater archaeology, as we already know the literature and even archaeological records in inland areas are not providing the entire history of humankind. There are always some missing parts. And underwater archaeology serves as a link to one-of-a-kind missing parts of human history.

4. The irreplaceable contribution to reconstructing the past

Underwater archaeology is important because of its overall contribution to reconstructing the past. The data retrieved from underwater archaeology can either confirm or deny the historical narratives that come from literature. And it can confirm or oppose existing interpretations made based on the data from archaeology on land. For instance, some aspects of human history, such as naval activities, might leave us no trail on the ground but only in literature. In such instances, this sub-discipline contributes to retrieving data from aquatic environments. Evidence such as shipwrecks provides undeniable evidence for naval activities. Archaeologists date timber from shipwrecks using dendrochronology. This way, underwater archaeology provides insights into the human past by supporting, correcting, or improving the data from literary records and inland archaeological records.

4. The only scientific discipline to recover, preserve, and conserve the cultural heritage submerged in water

In underwater archaeology, reconnaissance and excavation facilitate the recovery and preservation of cultural heritage submerged in water. Archaeologists can either extract artefacts into museums or preserve them on-site. Either way, the cultural heritage is preserved for future generations. If not for underwater archaeology, all the cultural heritage submerged in water will be neglected and destroyed with time. Though it is a very challenging process, underwater archaeology is the only scientific way of preserving and conserving submerged cultural heritage.

Origin and History of Underwater Archaeology

The first emergence of the discipline of underwater archaeology was in the early 1960s. Obviously, this is a young field in archaeology that has shown intensive development over the years. However, the roots of this discipline date back centuries. In fact, the history of underwater archaeology also exhibits its origin as a rather slow and gradual process, similar to the origin of archaeology. We can identify several stages in underwater archaeology, most of which are background stages.

Background Forms of Underwater Archaeology Before the 19th Century: Treasure Hunting and Antiquarianism

The roots of underwater archaeology go back to antiquarianism. Antiquarianism was not limited to inland areas. In the Renaissance era, when dilletantism took over, antiquarians expanded their expeditions for lost treasure and antiques into the sea. The legends about sunken cities and sunken ships full of treasures led them to engage in these adventurous quests. The earliest recorded instance was the discovery of two sunken ships in 1446. Cardinals Prospero Colonna and Leon Battista Alberti discovered these two vessels in a volcanic lake called Nemi, in the Lazio region of Italy.

Primarily, the reason for the origin of this field is due to the sunken ships with treasure in the ocean. For instance, in 1609, a Dutch VOC ship that was built in 1601 or 1602 was wrecked off Gabon, West Africa. The ship was filled with 18,000 zinc ingots. These types of shipwrecks with valuable items triggered the divers to explore them for treasure-hunting crusades. And the world was not lacking in these sunken ships as colonisation and naval activities progressed. Furthermore, the idea of sunken cities in the sea has been prevalent for thousands of years. The submerged land of Atlanta is the one we all know of. These two factors primarily drove enthusiasts into exploring underwater sites, mainly the ocean for material remains hidden beneath.

However, these underwater explorations were purely economic and lacked archaeological intent.

Underwater Archaeology in the 1940s: Post-World War II

After World War II, underwater archaeology transformed drastically. One reason for that was the introduction of scuba diving by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan in the 1940s. Scuba diving has made underwater exploration more accessible.

Then, in the 1950s, the excavation of the ship called Vasa took place in Sweden. In the 1960s, the discovery of Viking ships in Denmark took place. These instances laid the groundwork for underwater archaeology to emerge in the 1960s.

Underwater Archaeology in the 1960s: The Pioneering Work of George F. Bass

The father of underwater archaeology, George F. Bass, contributed to the emergence of underwater archaeology in the 1060s. His personal preference, fascination, and dedication to exploring the sea and astronomy resulted in his contributing to underwater archaeology. He was the first person to excavate an ancient shipwreck completely while it was on the seabed. He has excavated Bronze Age, Classical Age, and Byzantine wrecks since the 1960s. His excavations focused on historical value and the idea of digging into the past. So, his work established the main purpose of archaeology in underwater exploration, making it underwater archaeology.

Underwater Archaeology in the 1970s: Establishing a Discipline

The 1970s and 1980s were the most transformative years in underwater archaeology. With the excellent work of George F. Bass, the first museum of underwater archaeology was established in Bodrum, Turkey. The excavation of the Uluburun Shipwreck in the 1980s marked a remarkable milestone in the history of underwater archaeology as the excavation revealed a bronze-age cargo that was on the ship when it was sunk. Goerge F. Bass conducted this excavation, demonstrating the careful application of techniques and methods aimed at retrieving material data under water. These contributions established the methods and techniques in underwate archaeology. Also, Bass’s contribution to establishing the Nautical Archaeology Programme at Texas A&M University was a turning point.

Until today, archaeologists who specialise in the discipline have identified numerous underwater archaeological sites and conducted numerous underwater archaeological studies. The field is vastly developing, with modern technological applications for reconnaissance, excavation, recording, and data interpretation.

Pioneers in Underwater Archaeology and Famous Underwater Archaeologists

Regardless of the roots of underwater archaeology centuries ago, the 20th century witnessed its emergence as a subdiscipline. This exploration of submerged heritage had the guidance of pioneering individuals starting at the beginning of the 20th century. Therefore, the subsequent decades were full of discoveries in underwater archaeology, which shaped the discipline itself. Here is a list of 15 pioneering underwater archaeologists.

  1. Alfred Merlin (1876–1965)
  2. Louis Poinssot (1879–1967)
  3. Louis Drappier
  4. Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910–1997)
  5. Émile Gagnan (1900–1984)
  6. Philippe Tailliez (1905–2002)
  7. Frédéric Dumas (1913–1991)
  8. George F. Bass (1932–2021)
  9. Nino Lamboglia (1912–1977)
  10. Peter Throckmorton (1928–1990)
  11. Nic Flemming
  12. John M. McManamon (1951–Present)
  13. Robert F. Marx, also known as Bob Marx (1936–2019)
  14. Honour Frost (1917-2010)
  15. Christopher E. Horrell

Underwater Archaeological Sites

There are thousands of underwater archaeological sites in the world and it is impossible to say one’s significance goes above another. However, here are 10 noteworthy underwater archaeological sites all around the world.

  1. Atikythera, Greece
  2. Mannar Bay, Sri Lanka
  3. Bouldnor Clif, United Kingdom
  4. Area 240, Doggerland, North Sea
  5. Port Royal, Jamaica
  6. Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt
  7. Baiae, Italy
  8. Atlit-Yam, Israel
  9. Uluburun Shipwreck, Turkey
  10. Dwarka, India


Underwater archaeology is the branch of archaeology that deals with aquatic environments in studying the past human culture, behaviour, and cognition through material remains left from the past. Here, several aspects such as trade, water transport, coastal resource usage, naval activities, etc. are studied. Since we are not aquatic species, we use specific methods and techniques to conduct underwater reconnaissance and underwater excavations. After the data retrieval using such unique methods, archaeologists conduct the rest of the studies as usual.

This sub-discipline marks its significance as it is the only scientific discipline to study aquatic environments for the human past, as it is the only scientific way of protecting the cultural heritage submerged in water, as it provides data for the study of the past that cannot be replaceable, and as it contributes to the reconstruction of historical narratives.