Plunging into the Past; Underwater Archaeology, a New Scientific Discipline with a Wide Popular Following

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Plunging into the past

THE origins of underwater archaeology can be traced back to the time, about a century ago, when a handful of intrepid archaeologists began to use helmet diving methods or employ sponge divers to look at submerged ruins and wrecks. These methods were used on perhaps a dozen sites in all until the end of the Second World War, when the aqualung, a self-contained underwater breathing device invented by the French explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the engineer Emile Gagnan, made it possible for scientists and explorers to work cheaply and easily in waters up to 50 meters deep.

Hundreds of books and magazine articles have now been written about underwater archaeology. In particular, in the last thirty years a number of underwater excavations have received massive publicity (see page 12). These finds, surveys and excavations have been vitally important, and have furthered the art and discipline of underwater surveying, stratigraphy, and the interpretation of ancient seafaring. Such major wreck excavations which have produced well-preserved artefacts form the high points of underwater archaeology.

However, to present another review of the high points of the last thirty years might suggest that underwater archaeology has become intellectually and spiritually dead, living off the grandeur of its achievements. The truth is that underwater archaeology has been spreading like wildfire. There are now many thousands of underwater sites known throughout the world, ranging in age from 45,000 years to a few decades, from Stone Age quarry sites in Tasmania to American War of Independence gunboats; from the floor of the Mediterranean to Alpine lakes and sinkholes in Mexico and Florida. Hundreds of professional archaeologists spend at least part of their time supervising underwater sites, whilst thousands of amateur diving archaeologists assist the professionals in many dozens of countries.

Many developing countries now support scientific work on underwater archaeological sites ranging from the seventeenth-century Portuguese vessel off Mombasa (Kenya), and trade centres dating from the ninth to the twelfth century off Malaysia, to pre-European craft off Korea and Thailand, and early ports and wrecks off the southeast coast of Sri Lanka (see page 37). This increasing awareness of the cultural importance of archaeological sites in the maritime zone by governments and institutions is extremely encouraging.

The vast number of sites which are now known provide professional archaeologists with vital new opportunities. Whilst the sites are not all of equal value, and some are mundane, the accumulation of data means that experts can search for correlations, evolution and trends through time, spatial patterns and differences, links and causes. Instead of treating artefacts only as objects of beauty or technical achivement, the archaeologist can start to interpret them as parts of culture, trade, economics, politics, and patterns of living. Obviously the archaeologists working on the earlier excavations used comparisons with land sites to make such tentative deductions, but the sheer accumulation of information now means that much more sophisticated analysis can be attempted on the basis of comparison between underwater sites.

These vast assemblages of similar underwater sites of similar ages mean that we can start to understand how peoples and cultures related to the sea or lakes in each millennium and century. That is a grand objective. As the number and variety of site has increased, the age barrier has been pushed further back in time.

In the 1950s the earliest known shipwreck was the Gelidonya Bronze Age ship at 1200 BC (some others were earliest known harbours 200 BC), and the earliest known harbours about 600 BC. The age of ship finds has only been pushed a little way back, with the discovery in 1982 of the fourteenth-century BC ship near Kas off the coast of southern Turkey (see page 12), but the number of known ships older than 2,200 years has increased significantly, filling the gaps. …