IamA underwater archaeologist. Want to learn about underwater exploration, shipwrecks, pirates, and sunken cities? AMA!
Oct 3rd 2014 by maritimearchaeo • 37 Questions • 473 Points
Hey Reddit, I'm underwater archaeologist Peter Campbell and with me is the staff of the free online course Shipwrecks and Submerged Worlds (https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/shipwrecks). We're here to answer any questions you have about underwater exploration: shipwrecks, sunken cities, underwater caves, and the best technique for fighting a giant octopus, let's hear what you've got!
EDIT: Thanks folks! This was so much fun. Its after midnight here in the UK so that is a wrap for today. Here's a picture of me exhausted: http://i.imgur.com/BvitNsz.jpg
If you have questions in the future, I'm always on Reddit and Twitter (@peterbcampbell). There are lots of good questions left, so I'll try to answer them tomorrow.
Check out the online course if you found this interesting. Its totally free and you can do it at your own pace. Skip things you aren't interested in and you are under no obligation to complete it (though please try!). There is some great info on shipwrecks, sunken worlds, pirates, naval warfare, and everything else you can imagine relating to underwater research.
There appears to be enough interest that I'll set up a future AMA with a live feed from the research vessel, so you can see what life on board is like and what the robots are finding underwater!
How common are sunken cities in real life and which do you believe is the most interesting?
Here is a map of the western Mediterranean with ancient cities that have moved (up or down) due to eustatic (plates settling out after the last Ice Age) sea level change. http://imgur.com/Sb501pK
From my colleague Scott Tucker: Choosing a location to explore begins with defining one’s research interests. Let’s make a hypothetical about someone interested in Spanish Armada vessels. We would start by looking at historical documentation in Spanish archives, looking for documents describing where ships went down. From this, we would have some inclination of a search area. Next would come survey, in which we use some type of remote sensing equipment, like side-scan sonar or a magnetometer. The area is then scanned from a research vessel, looking for possible targets. The data is then analysed, and the best targets would be chosen for further exploration. This could be done by divers, or on a well-funded project, by robots. This time, target 7 proves to be a pile of cobble stones in an oval area, and the magnetometer spiked here, indicating iron, and some olive jars were found scattered nearby! A new research plan will now be formulated to investigate further.
I've always been fascinated by whats hiding down there, thanks for doing this AMA! -Where in the world would you love to explore most if you could get the rights too, what would you like to find? -Whats the most difficult dive you've ever done, and was it worth it? Thanks!
There is so much left to find underwater, it is incredible. I would love to work in central America (such as Honduras) or Asia (like China), where there is a rich maritime history that has barely been explored. It would be fascinating to work at inland sites too, like the great lakes of South Asia (such as Issyk Kul in Kyrgystan) or the cenotes of South America which likely hide many secrets of Mayan and Incan cultures.
The most difficult dive I've ever done was the Blue Eye Spring in Albania. It is a high flow cave with vertical shaft. The water has smoothed out the rocks in places so there are few good hand holds to work yourself down. The flow is so strong that if you look directly into the flow it compresses the purge on your regulator (the thing that gives divers air, for all you non-divers) and the stream even sweep small rocks up to the surface. It is physically exhausting, even if the cave is stunning. I was leading a project trying to document the ancient rituals that were undertaken at the cave.
Are there any things we know are underwater, have spent a great amount of expense trying to find, but remain elusive? If there is a big headline regarding a find in the next fifteen years, what would it most likely read?
Very good question. I have an article with Discovery coming out any day now titled "The Greatest Age of Discovery is Right Now" and it address this question. There many elusive big finds- Santa Maria, a Greek trireme, Vasco da Gama's ships of exploration- but the biggest finds will likely be ones we haven't heard of or considered. Modern humans are historically-obsessed, we think all the facts are in books. But very little of our history is actually recorded. Incredible finds are being made underwater from the deep past, before the historical record started. While we are fascinated by the Atlantis myth and the Titanic story, what lost ships and cities lay waiting from before recorded time? The most incredible stories may be ones that we haven't heard yet.
Why is the Great Lakes region the best region in North America, and why is Michigan the best state in the region?
Michigan is the worst state in the region and Wisconsin is the best. However, the Great Lakes region is fantastic, no small part due to frozen custard. There are also amazing shipwrecks in the Great Lakes that are perfectly preserved. The largest wooden ship ever built, the Appomattox, sank of Shorewood, WI, and can be visited quite easily. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (in Michigan....for now) might be the top wreck diver location in the world- these wrecks have to be seen to be believed. The are sitting upright on the bottom with their masts still standing. http://thunderbay.noaa.gov/
I have been working in Indiana, where a team of amateur archaeologists and myself have been recording a ship that was used for the Underground Railroad in the 1840s, but was caught by slave catchers and burned to the waterline.
Somewhere hidden in the Lakes is Le Griffon, an elusive French shipwreck that will make someone very famous.
There are also older remains below the lakes as well. There is a petrified forrest off Illinois from when the lake level was lower and archaeologists have found evidence of Native American hunting traps dating to the last Ice Age.
What does it take, qualifications/skill/background, to become and underwater explorer? How would someone get their "foot on deck",so to speak, to be able to have this occupation?
From Scott Tucker: Archaeology is an academic profession, so naturally, it requires a lot of education. During undergrad, we tend to focus on terrestrial sites, all gaining a similar background in general archaeology, before moving to a specialisation later in grad school. You get most of the basic training as a master’s student and jobs typically require a MA. Not all of us are divers, but many are. A fairly advanced level of dive training is necessary to work in many places, but this varies from country to country. Mostly though, you just need a drive and passion for learning about past cultures, mixed with a slight sense of adventure. Of course, there are plenty of opportunities to become involved as a diver, working with avocation groups in your area. Check out the Nautical Archaeology Society, which runs a lot of maritime archaeology projects for volunteers.
Hi Peter, I've been quietly stalking you for 10 years and it's been fun and educational to read about your adventures and your efforts to stop antiquity theft.
Can you explain how it's determined who gets to keep stuff found when a big underwater discovery is made? Do the families of the victims of a wreck get to keep their personal effects?
For example, if Malaysia 370 is found in 50 years by a private explorer, who would determine what happens with everything that was found? And would the answer be different if it were found tomorrow? (assuming it's not found by the officials who are looking for it)
Thanks! Sorry for the slow response, I wanted to get maritime lawyer and archaeologists Bob MacKintosh to answer this one.
He says, "When vessels and aircraft are lost at sea, who can claim ownership to the vessel and its cargo very much depends on where the wreck occurred. Each country will has its own laws covering the subject, and these may vary quite considerably. In many countries the law of salvage applies to wrecks, so if somebody recovers wreck it is returned to the owner, and the finder is paid a reward for their trouble. Some countries apply the law of finds, where the wreckage becomes the property of the finder no matter who previously owned it. In other countries all wrecks over a certain age become the property of the state. If the wreckage happened in international waters however, despite there maybe still being people that can claim ownership of the wreck, in practice no state has jurisdiction so people who find wrecks there can generally do as they please. Subject to all of this, people who own wrecks can often still claim ownership, and ownership of the wreck itself and the cargo or personal effects can be different. For example the Lusitania which sank in 1915 was said in a UK court to belong to the insurance company which underwrote the ship, but the items on board belonged to the original owners or their descendants. For recent wreckage such as the Malaysia 370 flight, it may be reasonably easy to determine ownership of various aspects of the aircraft and its cargo, but who can claim what will of course depend on where it crashed. However, in archaeology a lot of wrecks we study are much older, so ownership is much harder to determine. In these cases it often goes to the State whose waters the wreck was found in."
Peter: All the permits I work under are through the Ministry of Culture in the home country- anything we find belongs to the country and the Ministry determines whether we leave it on the seafloor for future generations of divers or if we bring it up for conservation and display in a museum or storage in an archive.
How does your work get funded? Is it just through governmental grants? Would it be possible to fund your work by selling cool stuff you've found in international waters (I'm assuming anything you find in territorial waters belongs to the adjoining country)?
Excellent question. Archaeology is funded through government funds, public grants, commercial contracts, endowments, private donations, university fees, and tourism. Archaeologists cannot ethically sell any artifacts, if they do then they are no longer considered archaeology and face sanction by professional boards. Could we legally (as opposed to ethically)? Yes. Would we really be able to fund the project? Probably not. Lets break this down.
First, ethics. Why can't archaeologists sell artifacts? Shipwrecks are like our patients, we need to remove all conflicts of interest and what is best for our patient (scientific data collection of our subject). There is a reason doctors can't get a bounty for organs- they no longer would do what is best for their patient. If you are able to sell silver coins, would you spend an equal amount of time recording wooden timbers that have no value? Wooden timbers have more scientific value than gold or silver artifacts, but treasure hunting ventures have beens shown to ignore these important objects for the valuable objects. Once you can sell even the most "minor" artifact, then you introduce a potential conflict of interest, so archaeological ethics state there is to be no sale of any artifacts. (These are ethics for archaeologists- just as doctors and lawyers have ethics that other professions aren't required to follow.)
Second, why wouldn't archaeologists make any money if they did sell artifacts from international waters? Operating costs for deep water archaeology starts at around $50,000 per day and goes up from there. It is super expensive. And very few ships ever carried anything of value- we are a science to the farmer's wheat shipment means as much historically (or more so since it was more common) than the treasure galleon.
The only artifacts that are sellable to warrant this price range are precious metals. A lot of treasure hunters have tried to make a profit doing deep water salvage, but research has shown that none of the major salvage projects have been turned a profit due to operating costs. You hear estimates of shipwrecks being worth $500 million or $1 billion, but actual auctions by treasure hunters haven't fetched anywhere close to that, topping out at $55 million. Now this sounds like a lot, but that venture- the Central America- lost money due to the massive operating costs and the treasure hunter is now on the lamb due to owing creditors and investors. So could archaeologists ignore ethics and sell artifacts? Perhaps. Would they make any money? No one has in the past, why would it be different now?
Thanks for your question! Let me know if you want more info.
Have you ever seen a submerged sunken city? If yes, how was it like?
I've seen many submerged cities! They aren't at all like the movies with whole buildings that you can swim through, but they are incredible. Most underwater cities are the foundations of buildings with artifacts from everyday life scattered all about. A telltale sign of an ancient underwater city is a beach covered in bits of pottery. With a bit of imagination as you can swim down the streets you can picture how the buildings would have looked on their foundation stones.
If you want to see some pictures, check Baia in Italy, it used to be the playground of Rome's elite: http://parcoarcheologicosommersodibaia.it/parco.php?id_lingua=en
There are lots of sunken cities if you want to Google some, I recommend Port Royal Jamaica (the infamous pirate den) and Alexandria Egypt (where they have found the lighthouse and ancient statues).
Hello. SCUBA diver here and my favorite types of dives are shipwrecks.
Have you ever explored the ancient city of Shicheng? The videos and pictures leave me speechless.
I've never been, but it does look amazing! For those of you who don't know, Shicheng is a Chinese medieval city that was flooded during the construction of a dam in the 1960s. It looks like a beautiful dive site. There are a lot of faked pictures on the internet of it, which I dont understand since the real photos are just as amazing. Check it out: http://www.news.com.au/travel/world-travel/the-ancient-lost-city-of-shi-cheng-lies-deep-underwater/story-e6frfqb9-1226832348823
Hi Peter, I m an undergrad who is majoring in anthropology with a focus in underwater archaeology. I am particularly interested in Caribbean shipwrecks and the pirate bases in the area like Port Royal, Nassau and Tortuga. I have a few questions.
- Do you know if there will be any future research conducted on Port Royal? The last time research was conducted was in the 80s by Texas A&M.
- How many shipwrecks have you encountered as an underwater archaeologist?
- Do you use remote sensing techniques in your research? If so, what kind? I am very interested in using remote sensing for my research one day.
Pirate archaeology has blown up in the last 5-10 years and there is no better time to do it than now. Just a few years ago we had scraps of evidence about pirates, now we have their shipwrecks, fleets, caves, and island lairs!
There are several groups vying for research at Port Royal. Donny Hamilton led the A&M projects in the 80s. His student Dave Stewart is now at East Carolina University and I believe he has done some recent work there (or at least appeared in a documentary about it). There was also a French team recording the visible structures. But what would be interested in learning from the site? It is low visibility and you would need to excavate a lot mud. If you are interested in pirates I would suggest going elsewhere. Speak with Fritz Hanselmann, the world expert on pirate shipwrecks and all around awesome dude. His PhD was on Captain Kidd's Quedagh Merchant and he found Captain Morgan's fleet in Panama (http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/captain-morgans-pirate-ship-found-110806.htm). Get on his team for a few seasons and the stick out on your own to find new pirate wrecks! The best stories aren't "celebrity" sites, but the unexpected ones.
I kept a list of wrecks I worked on for a while, which got up over 140. However, I worked a lot of ships graveyards at East Carolina University, which is how to get experience recording a lot of wrecks in a short amount of time.
I often use sidescan sonar, magnetometer, and multibeam. Sidescans are a great tried and true method, plus costs are coming down. Make sure you get the right one for the job you are trying to do. I've seen tenured professors using sidescans that wouldn't find a tanker at the depths they were using it at :) Multibeam is the standard in industry and it creates some beautiful data. Most jobs will train you in remote sensing gear once you are hired. http://www.hydropalooza.noaa.gov/images/press/MultiBeam.png