Deepwater Archaeology in Oil and Gas – By Kimberly L. Faulk (née Eslinger)

December 14, 2010

Kim FaulkThe unfortunate events leading up to and following the Macondo well blowout, and the loss of eleven lives in April have focused international attention on the domestic oil and gas industry in the United States for the first time since the Exxon Valdez oil spill on March 24, 1989.  In the 21 years since the Exxon Valdez disaster archaeologists have become more sophisticated in reacting to environmental and archaeological emergencies and in sharing that information with their colleagues.  For the relatively small number of us who work in the oil and gas industry as underwater archaeologists the impact of the recent spill will be on our minds for years to come.  Those of us who work offshore are highly aware of the innate dangers that surround offshore surveys, Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) operations, drilling operations, and infrastructure installation.  I was offshore the day Macondo exploded and for those of us on the boat, our first concern was whether there was anything we could do to assist.  Our second concern that day and the one we didn’t want to voice was whether we knew anyone aboard Deepwater Horizon.

Today, like most Americans, we have questions about the spill’s environmental impact, but we also are forced to ask questions regarding the impact on the archaeological sites we study, the cultural impact on the Gulf Coast, and our role in the oil and gas industry.  What role is there for underwater archaeologists in deepwater and in the oil and gas industry?  How can we better protect the submerged cultural resources we are tasked with assessing, and how can we be better advocates within the larger oil and gas industry, and with our archaeological colleagues?

For the first time in the history of oil and gas, underwater archaeology is becoming a high profile discipline in the industry.  I recently attended the Marine Technology Society’s Underwater Intervention conference in New Orleans, where Odyssey Marine spent a day promoting their recent projects to the oil and gas industry.  The apparent goal of the symposium was to convince the oil and gas industry that the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage would impact their work negatively.  At the close of the day Dr. Filipe Castro was asked to join a panel discussion sponsored by Odyssey Marine as the only voice on the panel in support of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.  At the close of the day the incredible thing was that the industry as a whole recognized that underwater archaeology is a necessary discipline and one that not only saves the industry money, but one that should be promoted instead of ignored.  Oil and gas personnel also seemed to recognize the day’s symposium for what it was; an attempt to paint underwater archaeology as an enemy to the oil and gas industry instead of a stakeholder.

Looking around the room that day I was struck by how few marine archaeologists are working in the oil and gas industry.  At present, there are fewer than 20 archaeologists working for private companies in the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico region.  Our responsibilities include setting up deepwater surveys for clients, assisting our clients in complying with federal guidelines established by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE, formerly the Minerals Management Service), assessing data from deepwater surveys, making recommendations regarding pipeline routing and subsea infrastructure placement, monitoring ROV surveys of potential cultural targets, and working with the BOEMRE and private industry to protect submerged cultural resources.

Unlike our colleagues working for state or federal governments, or those working in private research groups who can dive on the sites they are investigating, or touch the wreck sites they are mapping, most of us working in deepwater are working on sites too deep to dive, and with technology that adds an additional filter between us and the site.  Learning to view a site through a television monitor or from the filter of an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle’s (AUV) geophysical data is a daunting prospect for many archaeologists.  Unlike in graduate school or in previous jobs where I had to make do with old equipment that rarely worked correctly, I have access to the best equipment on the market and some of the best equipment operators in the industry.  I’ve learned more in the last five years about working in deepwater from ROV pilots, AUV operators, and geophysical operators than I could have learned anywhere else.

Deepwater archaeology brings its own set of difficult conditions and theoretical constructs.  The inability to “lay hands” on a wreck forces you to work in three dimensions through a two dimensional platform.  Our minds as underwater archaeologists are accustomed to creating pictures from what our hands feel in black water.  In deepwater we have to retrain our minds to build three dimensional images of a wreck site based on still photographs, sonar imagery, multibeam bathymetry, magnetic data, and video data.  On a daily basis those of us working in the oil and gas industry are reminded that the shipwrecks and prehistoric sites are part of cultural heritage that are seen by only a select few.

Those of us working in deepwater find ourselves confronted by the technological frontier on a regular basis.  Those things that only yesterday were figments of our imagination are suddenly possible.  With new technologies, we have the ability to image, map, and document sites in ways that were impossible a few years ago.  The cutting edge tools that were once out of reach are now part of our everyday survey kit.  AUVs which only a decade ago were unheard of in circles outside of the oil and gas industry or the military have become almost commonplace.  The technological frontier is also present in the software we use to view our data, and in our ability to conceive of and ask for new tools from our partners in the engineering and computing fields.  Deepwater archaeology requires not only a grasp of archaeological theories and methods, but also an understanding of how the robotic and geophysical tools we use on a daily basis operate, and an understanding of how the deep sea impacts artifacts and sites.

I have been lucky enough to work with many of the archaeologists who were on the cutting edge in the field when the federal government first required the industry to address archaeological resources.  Many of these archaeologists are still working in the industry and they serve not only as a wealth of knowledge on what techniques have worked, which ones have not, and the discoveries that have been made, but also as a peer review process for those of us looking to try new methods of inquiry.  Although the industry is proprietary and we all work under non-disclosure agreements, there is a level of scholarship and collegiality among deepwater archaeologists that makes it such an exciting and ever evolving branch of underwater archaeology.

For those of us working in the oil and gas industry we have the remarkable opportunity to serve as liaisons between our archaeological colleagues and the mix of disciplines in the oil and gas industry.  On any given project we will be the public face of marine archaeology for petroleum engineers, project managers, drillers, ROV pilots, AUV operators, geotechnical engineers, geologists, geophysicists, and pipeline engineers; just to name a few.  Marine archaeology started as an unwelcome participant in the oil and gas industry several decades ago; today marine archaeologists are viewed as critical members on many project planning teams.  Many of our clients now recognize the importance of protecting our submerged cultural heritage and the regional expertise that marine archaeologists bring to the table when planning for subsea infrastructure.  Whether we are working in the waters off Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific or Atlantic coastlines, or internationally, archaeologists are pushing the bounds of what is possible in deepwater archaeology with the tools provided by oil and gas clients who recognize the intrinsic value of protecting our collective cultural heritage.

Today when a project begins we are often invited to the table to assist in pre-survey planning and contingency planning.  Deepwater archaeologists in the oil and gas industry have become critical stakeholders in engineering discussions and pipeline routing.  The industry as a whole has come to realize that supporting and promoting underwater archaeology is a cheaper solution than simply ignoring it.  Papers and presentations on discoveries from oil and gas surveys have been attended by the general public, industry representatives and our own colleagues.  This year, for the first time in the 42 years that the Offshore Technology Conference has existed in Houston, Texas, there will be a day devoted to underwater archaeology in the oil and gas industry.  What does this all mean for the future?

Simply put the impact that a small cadre of marine archaeologists has had on the oil and gas industry is startling.  Thanks to a dedicated group of marine archaeologists who were willing to fight for submerged cultural resources in domestic waters we now have regulations that better protect our resources.  There is still much to be done, the current regulations leave loopholes and opportunities for clients to take shortcuts when assessing submerged cultural sites.

The foundation for archaeologists who want to work on the Outer Continental Shelf and in deepwater has been laid by those who came before us, but the frontier is still expanding.  We work to protect and preserve the sites we locate, and serve as stewards to our cultural legacy in a way that few underwater archaeologists have an opportunity to do.  We serve as liaisons to the rest of the oil and gas industry, educating our contractors and clients along the way about marine archaeology and our cultural heritage.  Our challenge as the industry grows and archaeology evolves is to continue to bring new talent, new ideas, new technology, and new theoretical constructs to our discipline and industry.

The industry’s culture is shifting though thanks to the hard work of archaeologists educating and promoting our field to the clients we work with everyday.  If we want to see regulations changed, survey methods improved, and our clients become stakeholders in protecting our submerged cultural heritage we have to be more involved with the industry and better proponents of our field.  Great opportunities to change public policy and perception regarding our field are rare, but small ones surround us every day.


Kimberly L. Faulk (née Eslinger) is currently the Marine Archaeologist for Geoscience Earth & Marine Services (GEMS) in Houston, Texas.  She holds an MA in Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology from East Carolina University, and a BA in History from Roanoke College.  She is an elected member of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology, the chair for the Society of Historic Archaeology’s Technologies Committee, an elected member of the Society for Underwater Technology’s Offshore Site Investigation Group, and the chair for the first sessions on marine archaeology at the Offshore Technology Conference 2011.  Her current work utilizes Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, Remotely Operated Vehicles, and conventional remote sensing equipment in deepwater to survey, investigate, and assess potential archaeological sites.  Ms. Faulk has published several articles on marine archaeology, and acted as producer and historical consultant on several documentaries and videos about history and marine archaeology.

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


  1. Thank you Kimberly – you have solved a puzzle for me having done a BA in Archaeology and spending the last 4 years in the Oil and Gas industry 🙂

  2. I earnestly appreciate this impacting publication by Ms Faulk. I’m currently an archaeology undergraduate student at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria and i have been somewhat confused on what area to major in for my masters after my undergraduate school. With my desire to contribute my quota to the oil and gas industry as well as international development organisations like UNESCO, i now which path to go – marine archaeology. Thank you so much Ms Faulk, i deeply appreciate this.

    • Now i know which path to go for my masters – marine archaeology. Thanks kimberly

  3. I greatly appreciate this post,I am a student of archaeology at the university of ibadan.

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