Avocationals Supporting the Profession – By Dave Howe

January 18, 2011

Editor’s note:

2010 was a great year for the Guest Blogger series which we capped off by publishing the Guest Blogger Anthology (available for free download off the MUA homepage).  We are very happy to kick off the 2011 Guest Blogger series by reaching out to a valuable partner in the field of underwater archaeology.  We’ve  invited Dave Howe to write about avocational involvement in underwater surveys and how trained volunteers can support professional archaeological endeavors.


Dave HoweAvocationals can provide free, useful and valuable labor on field projects or on other work in direct support of projects.  Although not trained to professional standards in archaeology, avocationals can bring a number of related or supplemental skills, including diving, boat handling, data management, equipment maintenance, forensics, and more.  They also can assist in publication and outreach.  The MUA hosts a number of posts from avocational groups.

For instance trained volunteer groups can conduct independent reconnaissance and assessment for State Historic Preservation Offices.  For example, during 2010 the Institute of Maritime History (IMH) mapped and reported ten sites to the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT), continued searching for two Revolutionary War warships for MHT, and began the first known underwater survey at Mount Vernon, finding two definite wrecks, two probable wrecks, and other cultural features not yet mapped.  In February and March 2011 we will map those sites and continue searching for others.  This project is for the benefit of Mount Vernon, MHT, and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR).

In 2011 we will also collaborate with MHT to scan a Civil War amphibious battlefield for Stafford County, Virginia; map what we believe to be the Confederate gunboat City of Richmond (ex ferry George Page) at Quantico for the U.S. Marine Corps; survey six rivers for VDHR; help MHT scan a Revolutionary War naval battlefield on the eastern side of Chesapeake Bay; and take boats and divers to St. Augustine FL to assist the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP) in their annual field school, in continued work on a colonial wreck (recovered artifacts date from 1740 to 1780), and in reconnaissance for other sites in northern Florida.  In collaboration with the Archaeological Society of Delaware, IMH also will conduct a 90-day reconnaissance of the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, including sonar and diver assessment of an estimated 355 sites and a search for remains of Fort Elfsborg, a 17th century Swedish fort.  The society’s “dance card” for 2011 includes 203 days underway.

In order to be attracted, retained, and engaged productively, avocationals obviously need a deep interest in the field (no pun), and they need to be willing, able, and eager to devote significant amounts of time to training and project work.  A passing or dilettante interest usually will not survive the first or second project.  Equally important, projects need to be interesting and significant, and to fully involve avocationals in meaningful ways, not just as “grunt” labor.

Training for avocationals should focus primarily on practical field skills, including diving in less than ideal conditions, no-impact surveying techniques, operation and maintenance of remote sensing equipment, and data management.

For independent reconnaissance avocationals also need access to vessels and remote sensing gear, but that is easy.  Almost any boat will do, and an adequate sidescan sonar can be had for less than $2,000.

Lastly, avocationals need financial support to offset major expenses.  They will freely donate labor, but the costs of travel, subsistence, boat fuel, and diving air on numerous or protracted projects can become onerous.


Dave Howe is Secretary of the Institute of Maritime History, a 501(c)(3) that was founded in Maine in 1994 to research, document, and preserve submerged archaeological and historic sites.  Its work benefits the federal and state governments, academic institutions, private organizations, and the public.

A graduate of New York University and Syracuse University College of Law, Dave was a Navy line officer during Viet Nam, a Reserve officer in the Mobile Inshore Undersea Warfare program after the war, an admiralty lawyer in New York and Washington (including four years as Assistant Supervisor of Salvage, USN), and an editor.  He recently retired to devote full time to IMH fieldwork in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and Florida, and to maintaining and operating IMH’s expanding flotilla of boats.

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



  1. Great post, Dave. Keep up the good work!

    – Chuck

  2. Dave, nicely put about the benefits and the invaluable complementary & supplementary skills that avocationals can bring to the field of UA.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: