Integrating Underwater and Terrestrial Archaeology – By Matthew A. Russell

May 17, 2010

As Jim Delgado reminded us in a recent MUA blog, underwater archaeology has been a separate and distinct sub-discipline of archaeology since George Bass’s first full-scale underwater excavation at Cape Gelidonya in 1960. Unfortunately, many early practitioners of underwater archaeology were not treated as serious scholars by terrestrial colleagues in the mainstream of either classical or anthropological archaeology. From the beginning, underwater archaeologists had to fight the perception that antiquarian-style collecting was the limit to what could be done underwater. This perception was repeatedly challenged through early publications that demonstrated the potential of anthropological archaeology underwater, including Keith Muckelroy’s Maritime Archaeology (1978), and Richard Gould’s edited volume Shipwreck Anthropology (1983), which was based on a School of American Research Advanced Seminar organized by Daniel Lenihan and Larry Murphy in 1981. Early skepticism about the scientific or academic contributions of underwater archaeology may also have been because of the inevitable confusion between treasure hunting and underwater archaeology, a problem that still exists among the public and even among other archaeologists. Despite fifty years of professional underwater archaeological research and publication, a gap still exists between terrestrial and underwater archaeologists.

The early biases and skepticism surrounding underwater archaeological research was not all the fault of terrestrial archaeologists—from the 1970s right up to the present, underwater archaeologists tended to maintain their own identities that were separate and distinct from their colleagues working on land. If you page through the abstract books from past Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) Annual Conferences on Historical and Underwater Archaeology, there are only rare instances where underwater and terrestrial sessions overlap. Oftentimes there was good reason for maintaining this separation—archaeologists working underwater tended to focus on ships and boats, and therefore had a common passion, regardless of period of interest, not shared by their colleagues on land; they used the same specialized techniques and dealt with the same issues of preservation and conservation that were also different from those of land-based archaeologists; and finally, the threats to historical shipwrecks underwater were (and often still are) very different than terrestrial sites, because commercial salvage and exploitation of underwater cultural heritage is not only legal in many places, but often celebrated in the popular media.

The distinct separation of underwater and terrestrial archaeology is not the case any longer, however. Over the past decade or more, maritime archaeologists have worked to make their research a part of the archaeological mainstream. Rather than choosing to publish solely in specialty journals such as the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, maritime archaeologists are now publishing in a diverse array of archaeological journals like American Antiquity, Journal of Archaeological Science, Geoarchaeology, Historical Archaeology, International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Journal of Field Archaeology, World Archaeology, Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites, and Public Archaeology. In addition, maritime sessions have been highlighted at an increasing number of professional conferences, such as the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) and the annual conferences of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Society for American Archaeology (SAA). Even at the SHA’s annual conference, which has featured both terrestrial and underwater archaeology for 40 years, the integration of maritime and terrestrial papers has recently become a priority. In January 2010, the theme of the SHA conference in Amelia Island, Florida was “Coastal Connections: Integrating Terrestrial and Underwater Archaeology.”

Individual archaeologists have made great strides towards integrating their research and publications with their terrestrial colleagues, but early on it was recognized that a larger voice was needed to bring attention to issues specifically relevant to underwater cultural resources. The Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology (ACUA), an independent non-profit organization, was created to help meet that need. The ACUA began as the Council on Underwater Archaeology in 1959, and was formalized at a meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1963 when a group of archaeologists, historians, and sport divers met for the first international Conference on Underwater Archaeology (CUA). From that successful beginning, two more bi-annual conferences were held in 1965 and 1967. In 1970, the first papers on underwater archaeology were given at the then-fledgling SHA conference, which held its first meeting in 1967. By 1973, the present structure and name of the ACUA were established and shortly thereafter came a merging of the SHA and CUA conferences. The SHA’s annual meeting became the Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology. Although the conference was a joint venture between the SHA and the ACUA, the ACUA remained a distinct entity, with a largely different agenda than the SHA.

The ACUA board members represent professionals in academia, private industry, government agencies, and non-profit organizations, but underwater archaeology is a growing field, both domestically and internationally. In general, the ACUA serves as an international advisory body on issues relating to underwater archaeology, conservation, and underwater cultural heritage management. We work to educate scholars, governments, sport divers, and the general public about underwater archaeology and the preservation of submerged resources. In practice, the ACUA has two, equally-important, roles. First, we are advocates for underwater cultural heritage and work to promote its preservation. This means responding to various issues with letters and providing information to the general public through our web page, brochures, publications, and other initiatives. Second, we actively work with the SHA to help organize the annual Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology, and we collaborate with the SHA Board and various SHA committees on underwater issues. The SHA supports the ACUA in conducting elections, with ACUA board members elected from the membership of the SHA. The ACUA works with the SHA Conference Committee to select an underwater program chair for the annual conference, organizes events at the meetings focused on underwater issues, and (with the generous support of the SHA) publishes underwater proceedings from the conferences. The ACUA also holds a permanent seat on the SHA Board of Directors. In this role, we see ourselves not only as serving and representing the maritime constituency of the SHA, but furthering the integration of underwater and terrestrial archaeology, which serves all SHA members. We also seek to broaden SHA’s membership by encouraging not only historical archaeologists working underwater to become members and attend the annual conferences, but also prehistoric and classical archaeologists, and other researchers working in the underwater realm.

In 2003, a Memorandum of Agreement between the ACUA and the SHA formalized the relationship between the two organizations. Over the past several years, the ACUA and SHA have worked together closely by responding to a number of issues of concern with a strong letter-writing campaign. The ACUA also frequently collaborates with SHA’s UNESCO Committee to promote the 2001 UNESCO Convention. Wholesale commercial salvage is legal in many areas, which is why the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001) is so important. Recent collaborations include organized symposiums focused on the UNESCO Convention at the 2007 SHA Conference in Williamsburg and at the Sixth World Archaeological Congress (WAC-6) in Dublin in 2008. In addition, ACUA graduate student associate members worked with the student subcommittee of SHA’s Academic and Professional Training Committee to organize a student forum at the SHA conferences in Toronto (2009) and Amelia Island (2010). In short, the ACUA and SHA have forged an effective partnership that serves as one example of the ongoing integration of terrestrial and underwater archaeology.

This is not to say that underwater archaeology does not have unique concerns that sometimes differ greatly from our counterparts on land. In particular, the threat to underwater cultural heritage from salvage and looting, both illicit and legal, is still a serious concern and one that requires constant attention to effectively counter. This is why advocacy from a number of independent organizations, including both narrowly-focused underwater archaeology groups like the ACUA and the Australasian Institute of Maritime Archaeology (AIMA), as well as broadly-based organizations such as the SHA, WAC, AAA, SAA and others, is so important. The ACUA actively tracks threats to submerged resources and works to coordinate appropriate responses in a way that can be much more effective than large organizations with numerous interest groups and diverse responsibilities. But to effectively mobilize such responses requires the successful collaboration of underwater and terrestrial archaeologists, demonstrating the importance of underwater cultural heritage to all archaeologists, and drawing on a network of professionals that moves beyond “maritime” and “terrestrial” constituencies. Although all archaeologists specialize to some degree or another, we are still all archaeologists who share a common commitment to preserving our past, no matter where it is located.
For more information about the ACUA, visit our web page (www.acuaonline.org) or email us at info@acuaonline.org to see how you can get involved.  To purchase copies of the 2007-2009 underwater proceedings, visit our online print-on-demand store http://stores.lulu.com/ACUA


Matthew A. Russell has been an archeologist with the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center (SRC) since 1993. He has a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from University of California, Santa Barbara, an M.A. in Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology from East Carolina University, and a M.A. in Anthropology from University of California, Berkeley. Among many NPS projects, he was Deputy Field Director for the H.L. Hunley Recovery Project in 2000 and has been Project Director for the USS Arizona Preservation Project since 2001. He has been an elected-member of the Advisory Council for Underwater Archaeology (ACUA) since 2003, and has served as both Secretary and Vice Chair—he is currently the ACUA Chair. He has also been a member of Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) since 1992, is past-Chair of SHA’s UNESCO Committee, and currently sits on SHA’s Board of Directors. In addition to a variety of monographs on SRC’s work in national parks, Matt has published articles in Historical Archaeology, Journal of Field Archaeology, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites, and Journal of Archaeological Science. He is currently completing a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley.

* The opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect those of the MUA, its staff, or its partner organizations.



  1. It is nice to see that underwater archaeology it starting to gain recognition. I have read a few articles on the discoveries made underwater and it really is amazing what people are able to find in the shipwrecks they go through. I hope that you continue to make great strides in your work.

  2. When the Wall went up in New Amsterdam, the English opened a warehouse on the outside, started by the Mayflower passenger Puritan, Isaac Allerton, formerly of the Bay colony, but later of New Haven where his ship “Hope” sailed between today’s Maine, Connecticut and New York City. A monument to his warehouse was once in what today is part of the NYC South Street Seaport Historic District, placed by the Mayflower Society in the early 20th c. Part of a terrestrial partially built land-site was brought to the attention of archaeologist, James Deetz, recounted in “In Small Things Forgotten” where Isaac Allerton had lived in Plimoth, then often mistaken for the “number two” in command, John Alderton, apparently often absent. He was perhaps the last “Pilgrim” to die in Connecticut and his remains were moved to the current cemetery maintained by Yale University. A large avenue, the exit between the botanical gardens and wildlife conservation organization, is named after him in the borough of the Bronx.

    The former warehouse on the East River shore overlays onto the parking lot in the South Street Seaport Historic District slated for either condemnation, to bring water up from the new tunnel being excavated below, an optimum distribution point (or One Police Plaza) or one of the fought over building designs. I would suggest that terrestrial archaeologists would be more concerned with what went into the properties rather than the interaction in its design and construction next to the first ferry to Brooklyn and original “Water Street” at 250 Water Street. In the past, at “175 Water Street” underwater archaeologists were invited in one December through March to document the so-called “Ronson Ship” (after the developer of a number of Manhattan properties now deceased) found on the last “deep test” permitted terrestrial archaeology (of three). It is good to see when archaeology includes both, perhaps again.

  3. […] are being made and things from the past are unveiled. After excavating one of the richest underwater archaeological sites in the world for two decades, the team has finally retrieved amazing artifacts from the last […]

  4. Good blog with some useful information.

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