Culture and heritage

Maritime heritage

Maritime archaeology overview

Maritime Archaeology is one section of the general field of archaeological study.

Archaeology is a form of study that uses multidisciplinary skills (historians, biologists, materials conservators, photographers, surveyors, geologists, technicians etc) to interpret meaning from the context (spatial and strategraphic layering) of cultural remains as well as from the form and substance of those remains.

It is associated with the study of ancient civilisations, or of civilisations from more recent historical times. Within the Australian environment, the broad areas of archaeological study consist of Aboriginal, historical, and maritime. Aboriginal sites can be 'pre-contact' or 'post contact' with European arrival and can be found above or below water. Historical archaeology refers to the 'post-contact' period and includes, domestic, commercial and industrial sites as well as most maritime sites.

The term Maritime Archaeology is used to refer not only to shipwreck sites in an ocean or coastal port environment but to all study of underwater archaeological remains. Sometimes the terms Nautical Archaeology or Underwater Archaeology may be used. Primarily the names refer to the medium in which the sites are predominantly found although shipwrecks out of water are still classified as maritime or nautical in nature.

Maritime archaeological sites can include shipwrecks, Aboriginal and historical cultural deposits associated with shoreline activities such as wharves or other structures that are underwater. The sites may represent civilisations that are ancient or modern.

Maritime archaeology site.

Maritime archaeology site.

While excavation is part of the skills of a professional maritime archaeologist, excavation permanently and irretrievably changes a site. If all shipwrecks were excavated, their aesthetic, recreational and habitat values would be lost. Excavation is usually limited to sites that have current potential to answer important research questions or which are under threat of destruction due to redevelopment proposals. Adequate resources must be available for controlled excavation, thorough registration and other documentation, conservation and site stabilisation as well as for storage, interpretation and dissemination of the outcomes of the excavation to the public.

Much of the work of maritime archaeologists is not related to excavation but involves surveying maritime sites, assessing archaeological potential, making management recommendations and in interpreting the sites to the wider community.

The study of archaeological sites is a way to provide a vivid encounter with our history. It deals with real objects and real places. It relates to real people and their everyday lives - and includes evidence of both the mundane as well as the exceptional.

(Courtesy of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology)

NSW Maritime Archaeology Program

The Heritage Branch, Office of Environment and Heritage runs the State's Maritime Archaeology Program. It employs professional maritime archaeologists who undertake a yearly work program. While administering the legislation that protects historic shipwrecks, the Branch also develops key education initiatives and encourages public participation in the management and conservation of all sites.

The NSW Maritime Archaeology Program works closely with the Department of Environment, the Commonwealth Department that administers the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. The Federal Minister for Environment & Heritage has delegated day to day administration of the Act to the Director of the Heritage Branch, Office of Environment & Heritage, and provides funding support to the NSW program.

Key successes in NSW include production of the Shipwreck Atlas of New South Wales (out of print), development of NSW Historic Shipwrecks Database, a range of educational publications and interactive community shipwreck survey projects. The Branch's maritime archaeologists also actively survey and inspect shipwrecks located throughout the State. They help to train others in maritime archaeology through the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology and the Nautical Archaeology Society (UK).

Community members are encouraged to become regional "Wreck Spotters" and to promote shipwreck research, inspection, site management and protection through their local area.


Page last updated: 19 March 2014