“Since at least the Bronze Age, seafaring has been key to cultural progress. Ships are in some cases the most technologically advanced equipment a culture would develop—their space shuttles. So to really understand the ancients, you have to be able to understand how they approached the sea, and the only way to do that is to excavate shipwrecks. And those ships only sank once, so they can give you incredibly precise dates.” (Bass 2012)
It used to be that if a ship sank that the ship along with all it contained was lost forever, but advances in technology and science have allowed us to not only explore the wrecks of our early ancestors, but retrieve and preserve the valuable artifacts that aid us to better understand their culture. By practicing the scientific process of archaeological underwater excavation archaeologists are able to retrieve pieces of cultural material that provide for us, a looking glass into the past. Over the years our understanding and practices of shipwreck identification, exploration, and conservation have evolved. We will explore the revolutionary beginnings of the science of underwater archeology along with the many processes that make up the practice of shipwreck excavation including both modern and early techniques. We will also analyze the conservation techniques used to preserve the artifacts recovered from the shipwrecks, and even the wrecks themselves, as well as the many ways these techniques have evolved to address the number and variety of cultural material retrieved from the ocean.
While exploration of the sea is not a new science, the practice of investigating, excavating, and preserving shipwrecks is still a very new process. Ancient shipwrecks would often be observed and explored by diving enthusiasts, or stumbled upon by commercial divers it was not until 1960’s that the scientific process of underwater archaeology was put into practice. In 1960’s George bass and his team of scientists traveled to Cape Gelidonya in Turkey, to perform the world’s first scientific excavation of a shipwreck. This project being the first of its kind, Bass and his team needed to take existing terrestrial archaeological processes and alter them for their own purposes, because while the method of recording and excavating the wreck was similar to that of a terrestrial site, the environment and challenges that accompanied underwater environments was nothing like that of an open air excavation. The excavation began by surveying the site, and forming detailed plans for the operation. Being limited to only one hour underwater and only two dives per person a day meant that the team would need to have their actions meticulously planned and rehearsed to ensure that they would get the greatest amount of work done in the limited amount of time. Prior to the removal of artifacts the entire ship and all of the cultural material that lay amongst the wreck would need to be recorded in detail. To do this,...