UCL News


Maritime archaeology and the near future

21 June 2007

With oil and gas resources becoming ever more precious, the energy industry is scouring increasingly remote areas of the globe.

Combined with the effects of rising sea levels and climate change, archaeologists are becoming increasingly concerned with the impact of these forces on historical and cultural sites.

Maritime archaeologist Dr Joe Flatman (UCL Institute of Archaeology) sees the likely entanglement of energy resources and archaeology in the next 30 to 60 years and beyond as both a threat and an opportunity.

"Inevitably, there will be conflict between governments and industry over the seas and oceans in the search for energy resources," says Dr Flatman. "Maritime archaeology will undoubtedly become embroiled in this conflict. Specialised access to remote survey and deep-diving technologies, the mapping of submerged landscapes and familiarity with hydrocarbon deposits look set to make maritime archaeology a pawn in a global game where every form of submerged material becomes a commercial commodity."

Concerns that submerged cultural heritage sites may be ignored or destroyed are accompanied by the possibility that sites may themselves become hijacked as a tool for legal claims to areas of the sea or ocean bed. Dr Flatman adds: "This would be an abuse of 'national' cultural heritage that maritime archaeological materials such as shipwrecks appear particularly susceptible to. Combined, these geopolitical events look likely to present new challenges to the archaeological community, who will have to re-examine cultural heritage research, resource and rescue priorities, professional ethics, public access and communication in order to make the most of the situation."

There is an incredible wealth of historic shipwreck materials that survive submerged around the world. Hundreds of thousands have been rigorously examined, creating a chronology of global seafaring since around 6000 BC. Unfortunately, other wreck sites have been looted or unknowingly destroyed in the face of development. There are also 'cultural landscapes' - areas that were once terrestrial but now submerged. In cold waters such as the Baltic and Black Seas, sites are amazingly well preserved. Archaeologists have found remains in excellent condition, such as entire Mesolithic villages inhabited in 6000-8000 BC, where evidence of fires, paddles, discarded nutshells and fish bones still survive.

In Australia, it has long been recognised that many of the first places settled by human beings in this region are now located underwater. One of the big issues of indigenous archaeology in Europe, the Americas and Australia involves settlement - where and how people first arrived, how they spread across the land and how they changed it from a 'natural' landscape to a 'cultural' landscape. With clear data, maritime archaeology can back up broader analysis of coastal migration theory by demonstrating that people probably travelled along the coastlines, frequently by water, and that some evidence has been submerged due to rising sea levels.

Dr Flatman explains: "There remains a huge number of submerged archaeological sites, dating from prehistory to the present day, that have never been disturbed despite all the hard work of archaeologists and treasure hunters over the past 50 years. However, we are on the cusp of a new era of ocean exploration, especially in the deeper waters of the continental shelves and abyssal depths. This brings with it both threats and opportunities."

Data on submerged sites in Europe is generally in-depth compared to the rest of the world. Dr Flatman is calling for increased coordination of management and legislation that cross the academic/governmental/commercial divides as well as territorial boundaries. Currently, there is a bewildering array of documents providing little guidance of practical use. There's also the issue of data sharing - some areas are surveyed over and over again by different companies who do not share information with one another or academia because of confidentiality problems.

"There will be a point when these parties want to be seen as 'friendly' to cultural heritage, so the energy crisis could be beneficial in terms of finding sites. Dredgers are already good at reporting sites, and cooperating with marine archaeologists could be good PR for them, at a small percentage of the overall cost. However, there is the possibility that cultural heritage becomes less relevant, and the imperative will be to find cheap and quick solutions, whether that be laying pipelines or building off-coast wind farms, and so what if a few shipwrecks or historic sites get in the way. What I'd like to see is something similar to the legislation we have on land. If a discovery is made during a seabed survey, it's a statutory requirement to tell the authorities so that an archaeological examination can take place."

Dr Flatman is also concerned with the marginalisation of marine heritage in the broader context of the marine environment: "The marine historic environment in particular is a non-renewable, extremely finite resource. Once it's gone it's gone forever. The same is not necessarily true of the marine natural environment, such as fish stocks that, although presently unstable, can be regenerated. We need to do something to protect submerged cultural heritage from this threat. This has to be done now, and collectively, in the face of unprecedented demands to compromise by government and industry alike."

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