Inside the Dive: an Interview with an Underwater Archaeologist

Answers provided by Underwater Archaeologist, Jonathon Moore.

How are shipwreck sites discovered?

Shipwrecks are usually found either by accident, or after someone or a group goes looking for them. Divers might find an unknown wreck while on a recreational dive, or on the other hand, a dredge could smash into a wreck while deepening the entrance to a harbour. Commercial fishermen often snag into them with their gear. Wrecks are also found by survey teams creating hydrographic charts or looking for natural resources. Most shipwrecks are found when people go looking for them. Underwater archaeologists are often asked to survey an area and report on the number and type of shipwrecks in that area. Many divers spend thousands of hours researching historical records, such as government archives or old newspaper articles, which will lead them to the location of shipwrecks, or narrow down an area in which they can search. Tens of thousands of wrecks have been found around the world by both archaeologists and divers. Searching for wrecks can be done simply by searching along the bottom while SCUBA diving, or by using equipment operated remotely from a boat on the water’s surface. Finding a shipwreck requires pulling together a wide range of information and conducting a systematic search.

How are shipwreck sites investigated?

The way in which a shipwreck is investigated usually depends upon how deep the wreck is, how much of the wreck survives, whether the wreck is buried, and the objectives of the investigation. Many shipwrecks are found in water so deep that normal SCUBA diving cannot be conducted, and in this case archaeologists might employ a remotely operated vehicle. In the past the Hamilton and Scourge have been investigated with remotely operated vehicles because they are located in water about 90 metres (300 feet) deep. Most wrecks around the world have been located in water shallow enough that they can be investigated by SCUBA diving. Investigations can range from a survey lasting just an hour to take photographs and measurements, or the excavation of a site lasting many months or years.

Where does one receive training / schooling to become an underwater archaeologist?

Archaeology underwater is really no different from archaeology as practiced on land, but some different methods and equipment are employed. To work competently, and above all safely, underwater the archaeologist has to have the academic and professional training of an archaeologist, and the skills of a scientific diver. Today most underwater archaeologists around the world have attended a university and qualified as archaeologists, usually through an undergraduate degree. They have learned to dive, and many obtain masters degrees from a university which offers specialized underwater archaeology programme. The fully qualified underwater archaeologist will have undertaken hundreds of dives, and will have mastered the full range of methods and techniques used underwater, and will be able to scientifically report the archaeological discoveries in the form of reports, articles, and public presentations. For those who are not professional archaeologists, there are many opportunities to participate in underwater archaeology. Thousands of sport divers around the world have attended underwater archaeology workshops and have gone on to conduct their own archaeology projects, and assist professional archaeologists. In Canada a number of organizations consisting of divers are concerned about protecting and documenting shipwrecks, and also organize underwater archaeology training seminars. The Nautical Archaeology Society organizes training for those wishing to become involved in underwater archaeology around the world.

What are the most interesting wrecks of warships in Canada? In the World?

There are many thousands of shipwrecks in Canada, found in a wide variety of underwater environments, from the Pacific to Atlantic Oceans and up north to the Arctic, and the hundreds of other lakes and rivers in between. All types of wrecks from across the country can tell us a great deal about our past. One category of wreck site are warships, such as the Hamilton and Scourge, and some other warships have been investigated in Canada. Two very interesting warships have been excavated by Canadian archaeologists. The French warship Machault sank in 1760 after a battle with English warships in the Restigouche River, New Brunswick. A ship involved in a failed attempt by American colonists led by Sir William Phips to capture Québec in 1690, was soon after wrecked in the lower St. Lawrence River. These are just two examples of warships investigated by archaeologists in Canada. Three well-know warship wrecks from around the world which have been excavated are the Mary Rose, an English warship which sank in front of the eyes of King Henry VIII, a Swedish warship called the Vasa which sank on its maiden voyage, and La Belle, a ship used by the French explorer LaSalle, which sank in the Gulf of Mexico off Texas, far from its home port.


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Support provided by the Government of Canada - The archaeology of this site was made possible by the generous support of Parks Canada.

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