UNESCO -CULTURE Banner

The Underwater Cultural Heritage

Underwater Archaeology

Underwater Archaeology
  • Ancient shipwreck near the island of Host (c) D. Frka/UNESCO

Archaeology studies human cultures through the analysis of their historical traces to explain the origin and development of civilizations.

Underwater archaeology is a sub-discipline, which studies submerged sites, artifacts, human remains and landscapes. It is to be seen in the larger context of maritime archaeology, which studies human relations with oceans, lakes and rivers and is complemented by nautical archaeology, which studies vessel construction and use.

Archaeological sites located under water are an important source of historic information. Often they contain, due to the lack of oxygen, material that is lost on comparable sites on dry land.

Techniques

The surveying, excavation and preservation of sites are important phases of the process of underwater archaeological research.

A variety of archaeological sciences are used in underwater archaeology:

  • The study of history and writings relating historic events,
  • Physics, information sciences, and chemistry,
  • Cultural anthropology, which studies the different cultures and their variation, examining the impact of interchange,
    Dendrochronology, which serves to date timbers,
  • Archaeobotany and archaeozoology to understand plant and animal material (for instance the identification of pollen samples, seeds or animal skeletons),
  • X-ray of concretions to identify about their interior or to make writings visible,
  • Geology, which can inform about soil movements transforming a site or changes in sea level, erosion or deposition of sediment material.


Qualifications

Archaeological sites are very fragile and sensitive to intrusion. Even an intervention that opens a site for research purposes “damages” the archaeological information contained therein, as the site is not undisturbed any more. It is therefore important that information contained therein is carefully recorded.

The 2001 Convention regulates therefore in its Annex, containing the “Rules concerning activities directed at underwater cultural heritage”, that only qualified and properly trained persons should be permitted to intervene on submerged sites.