Submerged NC: What is Underwater Archaeology?

Wednesday, April 29, 2020
Kimberly Kenyon, QAR Senior Conservator/Co-PI

Whenever and wherever humans have roamed can hold a world of possibility to learn about our past. Underwater archaeologists, also called nautical, marine, or maritime archaeologists, study a specific part of human existence: how people have interacted with oceans, seas, rivers, and lakes. In the past, the waterways were treated as a vast network of highways, and ships and boats were the easiest and safest way to move people or goods over great distances. Sometimes underwater archaeology is mistakenly equated with the hunt for sunken treasure, but the reality is underwater archaeologists are interested in more than just gold, coins, or jewelry. Looking beyond one type of artifact helps us to gain a greater understanding of the past.

Many underwater archaeologists are interested in how vessels were built and how that construction changed through time to better suit the needs of the people using them. While shipwrecks do play a key role in the interpretation of our seafaring history, they are not the only form of evidence we study. Some underwater archaeologists research ports and harbors to understand the importance of the waterways to the local population. Some may study what role ships have played in warfare through the ages. Others examine the cargos of shipwrecks to learn about ancient trade networks. Still others delve into sunken cities. There are so many ways to explore the impact of water on our lives.

Becoming an underwater archaeologist takes several years of education and training beyond four years of college. Universities in the US offer undergraduate courses in underwater archaeology, but there are currently no colleges where you can earn a bachelor’s degree in it. A handful of universities, including East Carolina University, Texas A&M University, and the University of West Florida, offer graduate-level education in this specialized area of archaeology. Most individuals working in the field today hold a master’s degree or a PhD, or both, and have completed months if not years as volunteers and interns on underwater sites and in archaeological labs building skills before finding a full-time job.

On top of learning the core principles of archaeology, such as how to establish a date for a site, how to map a site, and how to carefully handle fragile artifacts, an underwater archaeologist must be specially trained in scientific diving. Archaeological diving is usually more risky than recreational diving. Divers must be confident and able to handle difficult conditions like zero visibility, heavy currents, extreme depths, extreme temperatures, and hazardous marine life, all while investigating what can sometimes be very delicate artifacts. Underwater archaeologists spend years mastering specific on-site skills, such as using a dredge to remove sediment, working as a team under the water with fellow divers to accomplish tasks, and controlling buoyancy, all to ensure  they work safely and effectively without causing damage to the site.

For me, underwater archaeology is an incredibly rewarding career, and I cannot imagine myself doing anything else. There is no place on earth I enjoy more than being in the water, working to carefully document and recover objects that have not seen the light of day for centuries or even millennia.


-Condor engine, image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
-Underwater archaeologist Kim, image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
-Archaeologists dredging, image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources