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common ground

Contested Waters
Fall/Winter 1996, vol. 1(3/4)

Online Archive

*  Raising Standards: A Modern Framework for Protecting Our Common Maritime Heritage

(photo) Salvors search a ship in 1909.

"To make a discovery is the dream of most [sports divers]. A virgin wreck is a high-class trophy. It is also the first and last chance to record the scene in a pristine state."

John R. Halsey

by Gordon P. Watts, John C. Neville, and Roderick Mather

Since the dawn of recorded history, there have been seafarers. Our common maritime heritage is based on nautical traditions that have evolved over several millennia. Today, shipwrecks and the remains of docks, wharves, and harbors represent the most extensive and complex source of new information about our nautical past. Although largely untapped, the archeological record associated with this legacy has already rendered new insights into the history of seafaring. In the years to come, rapidly growing interest in research of this area promises to add dramatically to what we know today.

But maritime archeological sites, finite and irreplaceable, are being disturbed and, in some cases, destroyed, at an increasing rate. The seriousness of this situation demands that these sites be effectively preserved and managed, and that the public be better educated about their importance.

Those who investigate wrecks and other submerged sites fall into three general categories: treasure salvors, academic archeologists, and archeologists working for public agencies. Each has different—and sometimes competing—interests, methods, and goals. Since salvage and excavation necessarily result in the destruction of a site, all three groups must share responsibility for the proper recovery of any information that it may yield.

In this article, we examine the approaches of each of these groups. Then we recommend ways to dovetail their interests, raising the standards for managing, excavating, documenting, and interpreting these fast-disappearing remains of our maritime heritage.

Three Approaches to Investigating Shipwrecks

The history of salvage is old as seafaring itself. The concept of the shipwreck as a source of salvage is tied to traditional rights developed in admiralty law to reward the saving of lives and the recovery of valuable property. Admiralty law has long been used by salvors to assert their right to shipwrecks. This is in direct conflict with the more recent concept that shipwrecks and other submerged sites are historic entities to be protected and investigated as part of the public trust.

Attempts to resolve this conflict have focused on both litigation and legislation. Today, most state and federal laws recognize the interests of salvors, archeologists, and the diving public. Unfortunately, in states where treasure hunting is well established, the traditions of the salvor survive despite the loss of historic shipwrecks and significant amounts of archeological information. Salvage programs have done virtually nothing to protect the historic value of these wrecks, which are frequently destroyed in the search for treasure, with little or no regard for documentation of the site. Generally, artifacts are inadequately preserved and catalogued.

To further complicate matters, recovered artifacts are often dispersed when they are divided between the salvor and the government agency overseeing the operation. The salvor disposes of his "share" in order to pay expenses and the oversight agency places the rest in state-maintained collections. Frequently, however, there are not sufficient funds for curation or exhibition. Traveling exhibits, when they are done at all, are usually attempts by salvors to raise the market value of their "treasure." Books, similarly, often tout the idea of wreck hunting. Thus, with the exception of a few small museum exhibitions, there is little public benefit to justify the damage done.

Since the realization that shipwrecks represent an invaluable source of archeological and historical information, a considerable amount of legislation has been passed to remove them from the jurisdiction of admiralty law. Based largely on the Antiquities Act of 1906, legislation such as the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Archeological and Historic Preservation Act, and the Abandoned Shipwreck Act created requirements for the preservation of submerged sites. The result: an increased demand for underwater archeological research to comply with the preservation dictates of these laws. Predicated on the concept that underwater wrecks and ruins are publicly owned and of historic value, this type of research—contract archeology—has generated the largest amount of information and material from archeological sites.

As a consequence of its legislative origins, contract archeology takes place only when sites are threatened by development. For example, when improvements in the Savannah River recently threatened a number of historic shipwrecks along the riverbank, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commissioned a comprehensive program of excavation and documentation before the sites were destroyed. The work produced valuable insight into the maritime heritage associated with Savannah, Georgia's most significant port. If the sites had not been in danger, the research would not have taken place.

The legislative basis of contract archeology also requires that investigations be conducted to professional standards. Following the completion of field work and data analysis, reports are filed with the contracting agency and the state historic preservation office. Often, these reports have limited availability, and are not then "translated" or made available to the general public in other ways. Similarly, even when artifacts are fully stabilized, documented, catalogued, and curated (and often they are not) access to collections is limited. Contract archeologists deal with an exceptionally wide range of subject matter and produce a prodigious amount of information. However, because the circulation of this data is so limited, much of the work remains obscure.

Academic archeological projects, although not as numerous as those done under contract, usually generate the highest caliber final product. Academic archeologists are able to choose a site based on its significance alone. Unlike contract archeologists, they are not subject to the demands of a construction crew waiting to build a highway through the site, nor are they driven by financial profit, like salvors.

Academic research does frequently suffer, although to a lesser degree, from the same limited exposure as does the results of contract archeology. Although a few significant sites get widespread attention through publications and occasional film documentaries, the final product of much academic research is circulated only among a relatively small group of peers. Also as in public archeology, access to academic collections is limited. Only select artifacts and information end up interpreted for the public in museum exhibits.

Looking for Solutions

Clearly, there is a critical need for uniformly high standards of site management that can be applied across the spectrum of those who investigate shipwrecks and other underwater archeological sites. Although it is true that sites are protected to some degree, further steps need to be taken to avoid squandering, or losing altogether, the evidence of our maritime heritage found only in the archeological record.

First Steps. An appropriate first step would be to strengthen contract requirements on salvors and treasure hunters carrying on the tradition of "wrecking." Like archeologists, salvors should share the responsibility for recovering the information from the sites they disturb. Therefore, regulatory agencies must require that salvors maintain the same level of site documentation as archeologists. Standards for mapping and recording should be spelled out in salvage contracts.

In contract archeology, after sites are documented, they are often destroyed by the bridge building or channel dredging that follows. In cases where a site is deemed significant enough for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, development plans can be redesigned to avoid destruction. In other cases, it is possible to remove, preserve, and display remains of shipwrecks without incurring unacceptable costs.

The remains of the lumber schooner Lottie Cooper, identified during a contract archeological survey of the harbor at Sheboygan, Wisconsin, were raised prior to dredging and turned into an on-shore exhibit. Today, the vessel gives the public a unique view of Sheboygan's maritime heritage. Shipwrecks, which preserve a tremendous amount of technological and historical information, elicit a great amount of public interest. For those reasons, preserving them should be seriously considered in cases where it is practical to do so. Where that is not possible, wrecks could be reburied so they will be available for future study.

Another option is to reconstruct and develop sites for the diving public. A number of wrecks in U.S. and Canadian waters, set aside for that purpose, are very popular. In Minnesota, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society repaired structural deterioration that threatened several wrecks in Lake Superior. Now divers can safely explore them. Reconstructed sites such as these can also provide important opportunities for public education and training. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland, North and South Carolina, and Florida have organized activities for sport divers interested in learning about the methods of shipwreck archeology.

Making the Research Available. Making sure the results of research and excavation get exposure has always been one of the archeologist's mandates. Traditionally, this has meant publications—both professional and popular—and museum exhibits. Yet, in spite of a great interest in maritime archeology, the bulk of research is out of sight to the general public. Even when a group like the Institute of Nautical Archaeology provides access to its work—as it has at Turkey's Museum of Underwater Archaeology—articles about it in National Geographic reach far more people. Beyond a few notable publications, however, the public has little opportunity to understand the field without plowing through a mass of hard-to-find professional literature.

This could change with the revolution in communications and information technology. With the Internet, 3D imaging, Geographic Information Systems, CD ROM, and virtual reality, the possibilities for sharing archeological research with the public seem endless.

The internet. Through the Internet, every excavation could be available to anyone with access to a computer. This has already been done on a limited, ad hoc basis. For example, an Internet site on Italy's Poggio Colla Etruscan excavation gives the viewer an excellent overview of the site as well as a much more detailed perspective if desired. In a similar vein, the Mary Rose Trust maintains an award-winning web site on its namesake, a 16th century warship.

Disseminating information over the Internet should be a standard part of archeological research. This is not to say that web sites should replace conventional, high quality publications. Rather, they should complement them. The web site could serve as an introduction to the project, whetting the viewer's appetite for more detailed information available in print.

As with publications, there should be standards for web site development. Just as an archeological site tells a story, so should its web site follow a format designed to use maps, site plans, photographs, and professional and personal narratives. More than a static collection of images, the web site should change and expand as the excavation reveals new information.

These standards might be developed through a survey of the archeological community. At a minimum, a stock "fill in the blanks" web site package could then be developed based on the consensus. The highest quality web sites would, no doubt, enlist professional web site developers and designers.

Of the three groups, contract archeologists would probably benefit most from the Internet, given the amount of information their projects yield. Major investigations of wrecks in the Savannah River's Fig Island Channel, the 19th century schooner known as the "Hilton Wreck" in North Carolina's Cape Fear River, and the Confederate ironclad Fredericksburg in Virginia's James River, could all be part of a universally available body of archeological knowledge.

With agreed upon standards, web sites could become a common part of an archeological project, submitted as part of the final report. It might even be the contractor's responsibility to maintain the final product on-line. Alternatively, a central electronic library could be established, perhaps at a university or research institute, to maintain web sites and act as an information clearinghouse. Submission of reports to this library, in a web format, could be made a requirement of any public project.

Geographic Information Systems. One of the most useful and important management tools recently developed for the computer is the Geographic Information System, which can be used to store, sort, and recover geographic data. Powerful GIS software can be run at relatively low cost on desktops. GIS can contain maps, images, and other information related to archeological sites. Such a system can be used to assess options in land management as well as the likely impact of proposed development on archeological sites and historic properties.

California's historic preservation office has such a system; Tidewater Atlantic Research, Inc., has designed them for Charleston Harbor and the James River. They can also be used to manage individual sites. The Institute for International Maritime Research has recently begun work on a GIS system to manage the USS Monitor. With GIS data increasingly exchangeable from one software package to another, a state could compile a central database of all its archeological sites in a uniform format. Site plans, documentation, and artifact analysis could be offered to the user in standardized categories of information.

3D Imaging and Virtual Reality. The future of 3D imaging and virtual reality in archeology shows no bounds. While 3D imaging is still an expensive and time-consuming process in its most advanced form, high quality, near-affordable software packages for personal computers are commonly available. It is now possible to create 3D images of artifacts, features, and sites and store them digitally. Digitizers are available consisting of a mechanical arm and stylus for outlining the structure of 3D objects.

As a result of these advances, artifact collections can now be analyzed on the computer rather than in the laboratory. Experts around the world can examine the same collection simultaneously.

Frequently faced with vast numbers of artifacts, archeologists perpetually debate strategies for managing collections. After objects are documented, the choices for maritime archeologists are redeposition, storage, disposal, or display. As we have seen, it is a near impossible task to conserve and store all finds from a site. Storage of artifacts as 3D images, however, could alleviate some of these problems. With all artifacts documented and stored in digital format, it may be practically and ethically possible to dispose of or re-bury all but a representative sample.

Computers, of course, will never replace the artifacts themselves. Nor can an image replicate the connection with our ancestors that comes through physical contact with an artifact. Three dimensional imaging, however, could still revolutionize collections management. Future collections could be a fraction of their former size. Ultimately, it should be affordable to create a virtual site with all its artifacts and features in place. The researcher could then attempt reconstruction and experimental archeology through the computer.

CD ROM and Multimedia. CD ROMs can be used in a variety of ways to give scholars and the public greater access to our maritime heritage. The principle advantage of CD ROMs is their vast data storage capacity. It is now possible to store site plans, text, drawings, photographs, even entire artifact inventories on compact discs.

This technology offers exciting possibilities for developing multimedia learning tools for children and the public at large. A shipwreck presents the ideal subject. The user could explore the wreck, see underwater video, learn about the vessel's history, watch the excavation in progress, and view artifacts both in situ and after they are conserved.

Archeologists should give careful consideration to creating educational CD ROMs of this nature. A series of them in every school library could do more in a week to protect the future of wrecks and other underwater sites than a decade of lectures and school visits.

A Legacy at Risk

For much of human history, waterborne transportation was the only means of international and intercultural exchange. As a consequence, maritime research and underwater excavations have a truly international audience and global relevance. It is a heritage that belongs to us all. Whether sold by salvors, hidden away in storage cabinets, buried in academic obscurity, or dredged into oblivion, it stands to become a national loss.

For more information, contact the authors at the Institute for International Maritime Research, P.O. Box 2494, Washington, NC 27889, (919) 975-6659, fax (919) 975-2828, e-mai: iimr@coastalnet.com.

MJB/EJL