What is Maritime Archaeology?

Archaeology is the scientific study of the human past through the investigation of artifacts, structures and the remains of plants and animals. Archaeologists seek to better understand history and past human cultures and behavior. Maritime archaeology focuses on our maritime past and explores historic and prehistoric relationships with the sea and inland waters. For thousands of years, humans have built boats and ships in order to fish, trade, explore and wage war. For most of human existence, ships were the only way to transport people, goods and ideas over long distances. Ships allowed global exploration, the formation of colonial empires and the development of the world economy that we all participate in today. Beneath the surface of our oceans, lakes, rivers and wetlands lay evidence of these activities in the form of sunken shipwrecks and locally-built workboats, as well as the remains of piers, wharves, collapsed lighthouses and other such archaeological sites. The maritime archaeology of St. Augustine waters is particularly significant as this is the oldest port city in the United States. For well over four centuries, ships voyaged to and from this colonial outpost. Hundreds of Spanish, French, English, American and Confederate ships have been lost to the shifting sands and treacherous waters off our coast, each forming a unique time capsule giving archaeologists an exceptional view of the past.

Maritime archaeology is a specialized science combining techniques developed by archaeologists, marine scientists, historians, anthropologists, geologists, forensic specialists, oceanographers and naval architects. In addition, underwater archaeology requires strong diving skills in order to safely and efficiently gather underwater data. Documenting and excavating a site in accordance with strict archaeological standards is a meticulous and time-consuming process. Maritime archaeologists carefully record the precise location of every artifact on a shipwreck, just as forensic scientists do at a crime scene, in order to reconstruct the life ways of the people who lived and worked on the ship and the design and construction of the ship itself. All artifacts and other features such as ship timbers are measured, drawn in detail and photographed. Archaeologists may excavate or "dig" the site using a hand-held underwater dredge which deposits the sediment through a screen, assuring that not even the smallest artifact is lost. Shipwreck excavations can entail the recovery of large objects, such as 15-foot long anchors, along with delicate ones, such as fragments of sailcloth or paper or the wings of insects once present below deck. Samples are taken for laboratory analysis and species or substance identification, metallurgical composition or radiocarbon dating.

Shipwreck sites are particularly interesting to archaeologists because they act as virtual time capsules. Everything on board a sailing vessel, including things essential for each voyage, has the potential to be preserved in wreckage remains. This includes organic artifacts made of wood, bone, cloth or leather that would not normally survive on a land site. While underwater sediments tend to preserve such artifacts remarkably well, all objects recovered from the sea floor must be meticulously treated in a laboratory by archaeological conservators or risk being destroyed as they dry out. Cannon, for example, take years of electrolytic and chemical treatment to stabilize, allowing them to remain in a similar condition as they were on board the ship. Comparably, cannon such as those found across from the Castillo de San Marcos, have rusted away so severly that they are barely recognizable as cannon at all.  Different treatments are required for different materials.

Archaeology is not treasure hunting; we seek knowledge of the past, not profits through the sale of artifacts. The process of scientific archaeology is so involved that it is simply impossible to make a profit without cutting corners, which treasure hunters or commercial salvors are notorious for doing. Many shipwreck sites have been destroyed by treasure hunters blowing holes in the seafloor in order to find gold. The stories these wrecks might have told have been forever muted. Any artifacts that LAMP brings to the surface remain property of the State of Florida and either go on display in our museum, into storage where they can be accessed by other scholars or interested members of the public or loaned to other museums for display elsewhere.


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All text and images, unless otherwise noted, are copyright Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, Inc. We extend permission to scholars, students, and other interested members of the public to use images and to quote from text for non-commercial educational or research purposes, provided LAMP is acknowledged and credited. If there are any questions regarding the use of LAMP’s work, please inquire at LAMP@staugustinelighthouse.org.


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