What is Maritime Archaeology?

Maritime archaeology is a sub-discipline of the general field of archaeology.

Archaeology is the scientific study of the human past through the investigation of the physical remains of material culture (artefacts), structures, human remains or animals and plant remains used by humans. It attempts to broaden our understanding about past human cultures and their behaviours. Archaeology uses multi skills (history, biology, materials conservation, photography, land and marine survey, geology, technology etc.) to interpret meaning from the context of cultural remains as well as the form and substance of those remains.

Maritime archaeology, in its most basic form, is the study of material culture related to human interaction with the sea. It involves the study of ships and shipwrecks, maritime infrastructure, heritage exploitation, maritime identities and landscapes, seascapes, and other types of heritage, both tangible and intangible.

You may hear other terms such as nautical or underwater archaeology but these are generally concerned with smaller, more specific areas of the discipline. For example Nautical Archaeology is primarily focused on the “ship”, including its technical and social aspects, whether the ship is on land, underwater or in a museum.

Underwater Archaeology is generally concerned with the archaeology of sites located underwater, regardless of their connection to the sea; it includes shipwreck sites, aircraft wrecks, sunken cities, submerged Indigenous habitation sites, refuse sites and sometimes isolated finds such as jettisoned objects.

Maritime archaeology has a broader focus than either underwater or nautical archaeology. Areas of study in the maritime field can be wet or dry sites including shipwrecks, ship burials, shipwrecks buried in reclaimed land, maritime infrastructure sites (such as jetties, harbours and lighthouses), Indigenous fish traps or shipwreck survivor camps.

Archaeological excavation has been a common method used by professional maritime archaeologists to understand maritime sites. However, through movement of artefacts and contexts, excavation permanently and irretrievably changes a site and its aesthetic, recreational and environment values are diminished, if not lost, forever.

Excavation, these days, is therefore often limited to sites that have the potential to answer important questions or those that are under threat of destruction. However, much of the work of maritime archaeologists is not related to excavation but involves surveying maritime sites, assessing archaeological potential, making management recommendations and introducing maritime sites to the wider community.

The study of maritime archaeological sites is a way to provide us with a glimpse into our maritime pasts. It deals with real objects and real places. It relates to real people and their everyday lives - and includes evidence of both the mundane and the exceptional.