Maritime Archaeology in Northern Ireland. (Special Section)

Article excerpt

Key-words: intertidal archaeology, maritime archaeology, maritime cultural landscape, foreshore, seabed geophysics, shipwrecks


The study of maritime archaeology is a relatively new activity in Northern Ireland. This paper introduces the approach that has been adopted in investigating the maritime cultural landscape and takes a detailed look at the maritime archaeology of Strangford Lough.

Only in the last decade has government in Northern Ireland been responsible for the management of maritime archaeology. The Department of the Environment agency, Environment and Heritage Service (EHS), administers the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 in Northern Ireland's territorial waters. Having no knowledge of the subject and faced with the management of shipwrecks, EHS first created a register of known shipwrecks. A Senior Fellow, Colin Breen, was appointed in 1993 in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University Belfast. Using documentary sources such as Lloyd's List and Lloyd's Register, together with Parliamentary Sessional papers and many other documentary sources, he identified some 3000 wrecks around Northern Ireland's short coastline (Breen 1996).

Conscious of archaeological surveys of the intertidal zone elsewhere in Ireland and in the UK, EHS undertook a study of the foreshore of Strangford Lough, a large sea-inlet on the northeast Irish coast (FIGURE 1). Its initial focus was an intensive survey of the Lough's extensive intertidal zone consisting of some 50 sq. km of varied terrain of broad mud and sand flats, its narrow boulder foreshores and its islands. Results demonstrated that considerable archaeology survived on the foreshore from all chronological periods. An approximate cut-off date of c. 1900 was adopted. Follow-on work has included a major foreshore excavation as well as a number of minor ones. With recognition that this cultural resource could not be interpreted without further archaeological work in the adjoining coastal zone and sub-tidal zone, the scope of the project was widened to include this. After five years of fieldwork, with excellent results, the text is with the editor and the monograph in now nearing publication (McErlean et al. forthcoming). Such was the quality of the results that EHS staff became very aware of the importance of maritime archaeology to an island society (Williams 1996). A gradual process of awareness began to grow in which maritime archaeology was seen not simply as relating only to shipwrecks but as a more complex relationship of human activity between land and sea. This was remarkably similar to a concept published by the Scandinavian archaeologist Christer Westerdahl in 1992. In his paper he proposed the concept of the maritime cultural landscape which signifies human utilization (economy) of maritime space by boat: settlement, fishing, hunting, shipping and its attendant sub-cultures, such as pilotage, lighthouse and sea-mark maintenance (Westerdahl 1992).


In thinking of this broader approach EHS was conscious of the limitations of its response as a government agency to this new aspect of archaeology in Northern Ireland. While it was well placed to record and protect maritime archaeology, it lacked the ability to undertake research and teaching, which was more truly the role of a university department. After much negotiation, EHS, in collaboration with the University of Ulster, jointly established the Centre for Maritime Archaeology (CMA) in 1999. This is located at the university's Coleraine campus in the School of Biological & Environmental Sciences. Maritime archaeologists were brought together with other coastal scientists, already in post, in the School's Coastal Research Group.

This partnership delivers the government programme of recording and protection as well as the university functions of research and teaching. The register of shipwrecks now exists as a section of the Northern Ireland Monuments & Buildings Record (NIMBR). …