Culture and heritage

Maritime heritage

Investigate how archaeologists do what they do

How do archaeologists and historians investigate the past?

  • by investigation
  • recording
  • reconstructing
  • what questions do they ask?
  • how do they explain the data?

In the early days of "archaeology", for example from the times of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), investigating ancient sites was pretty haphazard.  Until scientific ways of excavating, recording and conserving remains were developed, much damage was done to archaeological remains.

Early archaeology often :

  • was little more than a dig to find precious artefacts and monumental remains
  • then taken for private collections and museums
  • had little understanding of the archaeological value of items related to everyday life
  • knew little of the importance of objects associations with different items and levels within a site (context and layering). 
  • had few scientific techniques available to study the remains or to investigate them further.

Today, new technologies get developed every year - from tree-ring and radio carbon dating, to DNA studies on human evolution, to detailed soil, pollen and material composition studies. 

The study of the physical remains from the past now involves:

  • a range of scientists other than archaeologists and historians
  • which can include: biologists, doctors, physicists, geographers, geologists, chemists, anthropologists, numismatists
  • each conducting detailed investigation of material found through the archaeological excavation of sites

New Opportunities

These new techniques allow many more questions to be asked of the remains being studied. 

It is now possible to look at the clay from a pot in one country and prove that it came from a clay source in another! Thus detailing the nature of that industry and the trade associated with it. 

More precise dating of objects based on their chemical makeup means that archaeologists can be more definite on the age of a particular object and therefore the society in which it was found.  There are many hundreds of ways that these new techniques help the work of archaeologists.

Even with today's scientific approach to recording past history and archaeology, the results are not always clear:

  • because a site is not fully excavated and all the evidence available for study
  • because the site is incomplete, through weathering and erosion over time
  • because of a significant event such as fire, war or natural destruction
  • or because of earlier excavation, farming or building activities
  • because of a lack of study of similar sites worldwide, by which to compare results. 

These events can all lead to missing clues.  All of these situations can mean that the archaeologist's results are incomplete and someone's views on a particular site, the people and artefacts, requires more work. 

This is why archaeologist's explanations for various periods and events can sometimes change as new information comes to light. 

Maritime archaeologist at a shipwreck

Maritime archaeologist at a shipwreck

A located historic shipwreck might add a great deal of information on shipbuilding and cargoes at that one period of time, but ten years later, a similar site might be found that is more complete, or holds different information on the same era. 

Archaeologist's and historian's findings are therefore often refined and open to discussion and argument.

This is healthy debate and encourages more research, scientific investigation, analysis, hypotheses and possible explanations!

Archaeologists and other specialists have to learn to work in teams.  Doing research, recording sites and undertaking excavations involves a lot of time and work.  It takes many people with a range of different skills to be able to record archaeological sites fully. 

You can see from the many people that are involved, you need to be able to share information, thoughts, ideas and skills.  Working on a large project can be very exciting and very rewarding.

Tools and equipment

Archaeologists working on land (Terrestrial Archaeologists), compared to those working underwater (Maritime Archaeologists), use different tools and techniques to record their sites.

Many of the aims and approaches to recording site information are the same, but the application can be quite different:

  • because of the medium of water.
  • Archaeologists must be able to SCUBA dive if they are going to visit completely submerged sites
  • they have restrictions on the amount of time they can stay underwater
  • and what tools and equipment they use.

Maritime Archaeologists have developed a range of equipment to help them in their work.  These include:

  • underwater grid frames to allow them to accurately record sections of sites
  • underwater camera's and videos and drawing slates
  • suction dredges allow them to carefully peal off layers of sand and sediments to uncover historic remains
  • specialised artefact conservation, storage and display techniques
Page last updated: 31 August 2012