As a little girl, I dreamed about shipwrecks, treasure and diving deep into the past. Leading a life aquatic is one thing, but is maritime archaeology only about shipwrecks and treasure?
Well, no, not exactly. Shipwrecks are critical to our understanding of the human past, but like most things in life, it’s a little more complicated than that.
How so? Well, people have explored our seas and oceans for over 2.5 million years. During that time, the geography of our world has changed – coastal regions have flooded, islands have risen up, countless hulks have been abandoned, boats buried, ships lost beneath the waves – and our relationship with the sea has changed with it.
This changing relationship with the sea is the focus of maritime archaeology. Definitively, it is the study of past societies and their relationships with the sea through the things they have left behind. To limit maritime archaeology to the science of shipwrecks is to limit Amazon to selling one title.
Those things left behind – artefacts – may include shipwrecks. They may also include submerged settlements, drowned landscapes, ports, harbours, lighthouses, landing places, rock art and isolated finds – the detritus of human life. This evidence of past societies may be found on land, underwater or somewhere in between (the intertidal zone) and not only in and around our seas and oceans, but around lakes, rivers and estuaries.
With over 70% of the world’s surface covered by water and maritime archaeology being a relatively nascent discipline, an unparalleled, largely untouched archaeological record has been left on, in, under and around the sea for us to discover, explore, understand, protect and most of all, enjoy.
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Thanks to Damien Siviero for the fantastic photography. In case you are interested, this image is of the Koputai, a New Zealand paddle steamer that sunk in bad weather in 1920. The wreck sits upright in approximately 80 metres of water, on sandy seabed, about 8km off Bondi Beach, Australia.