Underwater Archaeology: The Submerged History

EarthzineOcean Stewardship 2016, Original, Themed Articles

Unicen, Universidad Nacional Del Centro De La Provincia De Buenos Aires

An interview with Dolores Elkin on her research in different parts of the Argentine Atlantic coast and in Panama as part of a special mission related to a 17th century Spanish galleon.

Underwater archaeology reveals the submerged past of mankind: tales of pirates, shipwrecks, ancient creatures or adventures that ended in tragedy. Argentine researcher Dolores Elkin emerges out of this magical and fascinating ecosystem and explains the sense of her job. Elkin holds a Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Buenos Aires and is a researcher at the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET). She’s also a professional scientific diver with Argentine Naval Prefecture and director of the Underwater Archaeology Program at the National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Thought (Ministry of Culture).

You can write when submerged using a common graphite pencil and a special ‰ÛÏpaper‰Û of polyester film. Image Credit: Uriel Sokolowicz ‰ÛÒ Swift Project

You can write when submerged using a common graphite pencil and a special ‰ÛÏpaper‰Û of polyester film. Image Credit: Uriel Sokolowicz ‰ÛÒ Swift Project

What is underwater archaeology?

It is nothing more than what its name suggests: archaeology under the water. It must be governed by the same principles as archaeology and employ the same techniques used on land although adapted to a specific environment. The characteristics, then, are related to the archaeological materials covered by water, which has its benefits and drawbacks. Contrary to what is often assumed, water can preserve the remains very well, especially if they are in a low-oxygen environment, for example covered by fine sediment. On the other hand, difficulties arise when diving conditions are adverse: poor visibility, strong currents, limited availability of time to work in the site ‰Û_ The underwater environment is not always hostile, but it’s important to be properly trained in diving and know the risks and limitations that this activity entails.

Which are the most important studies in this field in Latin America?

In Latin America, Mexico has been the pioneer in underwater archaeology, by virtue of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). With 30 years of experience in underwater archaeology, its researchers have worked in different environments, such as the sea, lakes and cenotes. One of the most important research that is currently being developed in this country focuses on a very interesting archaeological site called Hoyo Negro (Black Hole), a cenote located in the Yucatan area where human remains and extinct fauna with an age of about 12,000 years were found.

Argentina is also a country that could be considered well-positioned in relation to Latin American underwater archaeology: There are two teams that have been working since the mid-1990s, one based at the National University of Rosario and another at the National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Thought (INAPL). The joint work of both teams covers the study of several underwater sites, both on marine and fluvial environments.

Other Latin American countries that have begun to conduct research in underwater archaeology are Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia and most recently Peru. The main challenges facing the region don’t have much to do with budget constraints, given that these investigations are regularly no more expensive than their equivalent on land, but rather with the lack of trained professionals in the field. Another challenge in our region is the periodic presence of treasure hunters for whom economic interests are more important than knowledge generation and heritage preservation.

As soon as the materials are extracted from an underwater place, they must keep wet, as in the case with this wooden table from the Swift location. Image Credit: PROAS ‰ÛÒ Swift Project

As soon as the materials are extracted from an underwater place, they must keep wet, as in the case with this wooden table from the Swift location. Image Credit: PROAS ‰ÛÒ Swift Project

Why is this discipline relevant for archaeology and science in general?

It is relevant largely because water is a virgin territory to explore and therefore has enormous potential to increase our knowledge about human past. The peopling of the Americas, for example, could be studied in a very enriching way if some places of the coastal strip that nowadays are submerged due to several changes in the sea level were incorporated into the study. On the other hand, shipwrecks constitute most of the remains studied by underwater archaeology and both the ships themselves and the entire set of materials associated with them may reflect many cultural aspects. Through ships you can learn about life on board, marine customs, technology, health, food, and many other subjects.

It is also a topic of interest for the United Nations (see the boxed information at the end of this article). ‰ÛÏArgentina is one of the States Parties that joined the Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage developed by UNESCO in 2001, of which more than 50 countries are States Parties,‰Û Elkin said. ‰ÛÏIf the United Nations has made a wake-up call in that sense, it is important to raise awareness to care for the cultural heritage associated with the water of seas, rivers and lakes around the world. This is not only in the hands of underwater archaeologists or heritage managers but in those of anyone.‰Û

You started working in Andean prehistoric archaeology, so you went from the heights to the depths of the sea. How did that transition take place?

I moved from the mountain to the water because I was informed about an archaeological site where some people were extracting objects with good will but without a professional judgment. I also became aware that there were no archaeologists in the country prepared for a work of this nature. That was why I decided to start training in this specialty. At that time, I was finishing my doctoral research in high Andean archaeology, it was a good opportunity to make this change or at least try to do so. I wouldn’t have done it without the help of the team I work with and the institutional support of the INAPL director Diana Rolandi.

Dolores Elkin in Panama, during a mission of UNESCO to inspect the leftovers of a 17th century Spanish galleon. Image Credit: M. Aznar

Dolores Elkin in Panama, during a mission of UNESCO to inspect the leftovers of a 17th century Spanish galleon. Image Credit: M. Aznar

What projects have you worked on? Which one stands out the most to you?

I have worked in research in different parts of the Argentine Atlantic coast, including the Argentine provinces of Buenos Aires, Chubut, Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego. In 2015, I had the opportunity to provide technical assistance in Panama as part of a special mission led by UNESCO related to a 17th century Spanish galleon. All these projects are equally interesting and it wouldn’t be fair to compare them since each of them provides knowledge and experience on different topics. Nevertheless, the Swift project ‰ÛÒ focused on an 18th century sloop of war sunk in Puerto Deseado in Patagonia, Argentina ‰ÛÒ is significant to me because of the amount of years devoted to the study of this site and because it was the first underwater project I worked on. It was a long, intense and exciting experience, and it will be probably resumed in the future if the conditions are right.

What was the most significant finding?

It was a human skeleton in the Swift sloop. It wasn’t me who discovered it, but the finding occurred during one of our field seasons and the whole team shared a very special feeling about it. It was a person who died almost two and a half centuries ago, and we had the opportunity to give him a decent burial after all this time. On the other hand, we made a series of studies that allowed us to know some aspects related to health and other interesting topics from the bio-anthropological point of view.

What projects are you planning to work on in the future?

I hope to work in Tierra del Fuego and Chubut -two Argentine southern provinces- where we have focused our research in recent years. In both cases we are studying a variety of topics related to the navigation that took place in the coastline of the two provinces from the 18th century onwards, covering the period of transition from sailing ships to steam ships.

Some Legal and Ethical Aspects

In addressing the work of underwater archaeology, several controversies often arise regarding the findings and their subsequent commercial use. Issues like conflicts with industrial salvors, ownership and financial exploitation when artifacts are brought to market, and the sanctity of wrecks as graveyard sites, are only a few examples. To give light in this insight, we included the international law on this subject (please refer to the separated box) and contacted MarÌ_a Luz Endere, Ph.D., and professor of heritage law and cultural resource management (UNCPBA), CONICET researcher and UNESCO expert in illicit traffic of cultural heritage. Regarding the economic exploitation of the findings, she recalls that the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (adopted by UNESCO in 2001 and effective since 2009) establishes that ‰ÛÏUnderwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited‰Û (art 1 point 7). States Parties shall take measures to prevent the entry into their territory, the dealing in, or the possession of, underwater cultural heritage illicitly exported and/or recovered, where recovery was contrary to this Convention (art. 14).

Elkin diving during the Panama mission. Image Credit: H. Barba

Elkin diving during the Panama mission. Image Credit: H. Barba

Concerning Sanctions, Endere stresses that each State Party shall impose sanctions for violations of measures it has taken to implement this Convention. These sanctions shall be adequate in severity to be effective in securing compliance with this Convention and to discourage violations wherever they occur and shall deprive offenders of the benefit deriving from their illegal activities. And States Parties shall cooperate to ensure enforcement of sanctions imposed (art. 17). It is then clear that the 2001 Convention extends the protection against illicit trade of cultural property to underwater cultural heritage. The State party should act, in these cases, confiscating the objects. ‰ÛÏThat was the case of the Saudi Arabian coins confiscated in the USA and returned to this country (see Ancient coins seized and returned to Saudi Ambassador),‰Û recalls Endere.

On the other hand, article 4 of 2001 Convention states that any activity relating to underwater cultural heritage to which this Convention applies shall not be subject to the law of salvage or law of finds, unless it:

(a) is authorized by the competent authorities, and

(b) is in full conformity with this Convention, and

(c) ensures that any recovery of the underwater cultural heritage achieves its maximum protection.

In addition, Article 5 specifies that Each State Party shall use the best practicable means at its disposal to prevent or mitigate any adverse effects that might arise from activities under its jurisdiction incidentally affecting underwater cultural heritage. Moreover, Rule No. 2 concerning activities directed at underwater cultural heritage states: ‰ÛÏThe commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage for trade or speculation or its irretrievable dispersal is fundamentally incompatible with the protection and proper management of underwater cultural heritage. Underwater cultural heritage shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods.‰Û According to this convention, States Parties shall ensure that proper respect is given to all human remains located in maritime waters (art. 1 point 9). This point is then clarified in the Annex where the general principles of the convention are listed. Thus, Rule 5 states that ‰ÛÏActivities directed at underwater cultural heritage shall avoid the unnecessary disturbance of human remains or venerated sites.‰Û This is a key point, according Endere, due to 1) the exceptional conditions of conservation of human remains under submerged environments and 2) the identity of the crew members of shipwrecks could be easily identified through maritime records. For this reason special care must be taken when human remains are involved.

In conclusion, Endere highlights that ‰ÛÏwhen the protected heritage includes human remains and venerated sites it becomes a sensitive issue. The varying ways that cultures associate with this heritage should be considered, since their significance and treatment depends on their relationship with the deceased, religious convictions or historical associations. Moreover, there is great cultural diversity in what the dead or their remains mean for the living. In this sense, scientific interest on these remains should be balanced with the due respect for the human remains as well as the feelings of their descendants or other stakeholders‰Û (see Manual for Activities directed at Underwater Cultural Heritage. Guidelines to the Annex of the UNESCO 2001 Convention, edited by Thijs J. Maarleveld, Ulrike GuÌ©rin and Barbara Egger, UNESCO, 2013).