Sharing the Global Shipwreck

At least two or three times a year I get an email or a phone call from television production companies that are thinking about putting TV shows together that feature underwater archaeology.  My first reaction is usually positive because in an age where there are numerous shows about digging for gold or finding treasure in abandoned storage rooms or attics it would be good to have ethical archaeology alternatives out there for the public to view.  Inevitably though the majority of folks that contact me ask questions like, “Can you guarantee we’ll find a very historically significant unknown shipwreck within the next three weeks?” or  “what do you think about a show where each week we throw out one of the graduate student underwater archaeologists, you know get some real tension going? ”  (Actually, some of my old professors might have liked that one.)  I usually reply with something like, “um…it doesn’t really work that way.”  Most times I don’t hear from them again for another year but it does remind me that for the mass TV audience these are the folks that drive many of the shows we see out there.  There have been some very good programs produced in the last few years but sadly they are few and far between.   One major reason is the cost of producing programs for television broadcast.  Most of us have turned to the Internet instead to assist us with the all important task of public outreach.

It’s really only been less than ten years that underwater archaeology as a field has made wide use of the Internet.  Within that time period, however, numerous sites have popped up through university department homepages, museums, and nonprofit organizations.   There are online project journals, personal research blogs, exhibits, digital posters, videos, live broadcasts and ubiquitous Facebook pages.  One might wonder if we have reached the limits of what we can do on the web.  An Internet industry trend website estimated that as of August 2011 there were over one billion websites on the web.  It’s reasonable to wonder if throwing up yet another website is like adding a bucket of water to the cyber ocean. To which I would reply… maybe.  What is a digitally minded underwater archaeologist to do?   I say “maybe” because it depends on how we go about putting our materials online.   Going forward I believe we need to look to the past.

In November 2011 I had the good fortune to present a paper at the first ever Asia-Pacific  Underwater Cultural Heritage Conference in Manila, the Philippines.  Even as a Great Lakes colonial maritime historian and underwater archaeologist I felt I shared research interests with this incredible collection of cultural heritage mangagers from throughout the Asia-Pacific region.  Their homelands had developed the cultures that contributed to a landscape of maritime trade that reached all the way into the eighteenth century Great Lakes with shipments of porcelains, vermillion, teas and opiates. In my talk I noted that the wrecked ships that once participated in that world wide trade network travel again virtually over a digital network.  They still link cultures that live beyond the water’s edge at each end of the voyage.  The Chinese porcelain artisan who shipped his goods to the coast was connected to the British officer at Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario in North America even though they would never meet or travel to each other’s home.  Today students in Western Australia read about ships that wrecked off St. Augustine, Florida and Japanese museum staff email graduate students in eastern North Carolina to exchange information.  Because the vessels continue to draw people together albeit for educational rather than commercial reasons, every shipwreck becomes a global shipwreck.

By continuing to look at past trade networks we can find ways to overcome the isolation our websites might experience out in the cyber ocean. For instance, at times historic vessels participated in cooperative agreements and collaborative projects with other members of the merchant community. Some ship owners pooled their risk through marine insurance companies.  Underwater archaeologists working on different sites could consider leveraging the connections that exist between their projects online to increase visibility.  While collaborative agreements might sound like an obvious way to offset the high costs of online presentations, it is not an option that necessarily comes to mind for some archaeologists.  Indeed a small survey conducted by the Museum of Underwater Archaeology (MUA) showed that when asked what the best use of the Internet might be for the field, only thirteen percent of underwater archaeologists cited “collaboration” as opposed to the general public who mentioned it forty percent of the time. While many archaeologists are open to sharing their databases online, and that is a good first step, much more can be done to move from passive to active collaborative projects.  One example might be to create joint pages between multiple independent organizations that are topically linked.  For instance the MUA is working on a project wherein information on and images of birchbark canoes stored in numerous museums around the Great Lakes will be featured in an online exhibit.  It will draw attention to all of the participating institutions and show how they are all connected and possibly encourage the public to visit and support the actual sites themselves.

In the future the most cost effective way to increase visibility online and thus assist with public outreach efforts in underwater archaeology might not involve any “new” technology at all but rather explore new ways to use what already exists.  The key is to share as much information with the public and each other as possible using tools that are available today.  One of the earliest pioneers in digital humanities was the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.  Founded in 1994 the Rosenzweig Center has not only gathered collections of archival material for researchers to view online but has also created tools for data presentation that are freely available.  The Asia-Pacific Underwater Cultural Heritage Conference, in partnership with the MUA, used the Omeka web presentation tool developed by the Rosenzweig Center to make every paper presented at the conference freely available online.  This was an important goal for the conference organizers as many of the attendees came from countries with limited resources.  If we want to differentiate what we do from treasure hunters in the public’s eye then, when we have the means, we need to develop presentation and outreach models that clearly set us apart as a field, make the most of limited resources, and reach the widest possible audience.

We are living in the midst of a data exchange revolution.  I take it as a good sign that the TV producers I mentioned earlier can find underwater archaeologists to talk to far easier than they probably could have in the past.  So many good projects are now available online, which is a great trend, but as we add our webpages to the cyber ocean we must not let them get lost at sea.   Technologies old and new can help us build collaborative connections that can teach everyone about the global shipwreck.

See all the posts for Tech Week, focusing on public archaeology and Underwater Archaeology!

Technology, Outreach, and Marine Archaeology in the Deep Sea

The NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program’s 2012 Gulf of Mexico cruise combined cutting edge technologies to create a unique experience for both the public at large and the scientists involved in the project (  This public outreach experience is a key concept of the Okeanos Explorer cruises.  The premise behind the program is simple, but effective; NOAA provides the vessel, the exploration equipment, and the satellite uplinks to literally beam the data to a larger audience of scientists than could ever be brought offshore.  With only a small compliment of scientists, engineers, and computer specialists guiding the operations shipboard, a larger science team participates in real time from shore via live streaming video, internet chat rooms, conference calls, and specially equipped Exploration Command Centers.  The live internet streams also allow the public to become part of the science team, by watching the explorations with the scientists, listening to their commentary, and even participating through an “Ask an Explorer” option on the NOAA website.

Little Hercules hovering over rigging pile in the Gulf of Mexico. Image courtesty of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

The 2012 Gulf of Mexico cruise was unique even for the Okeanos Explorer program, since, for the first time, the cruise’s research objectives included a marine archaeology component.  The inclusion of marine archaeology in the project brought together a truly multidisciplinary team of marine archaeologists, biologists, geologists, and geophysicists to investigate each of the proposed archaeological sites.  It also brought the rare opportunity for Federal, private, and academic marine archaeologists to collaborate together on a project.   Marine archaeologists representing federal agencies including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management  (, the Bureau of Safety and environmental Enforcement (, the Naval Heritage and History Command ( ), and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration ( joined marine archaeologists from private industry such as C & C Technologies (, Geoscience Earth and Marine Services (GEMS), a Forum Energy Technologies Company, (, and Tesla Offshore (, and marine archaeologists from the University of Rhode Island, to assess archaeological sites selected for investigation during the project.

The initial discussions to select sites for investigation during the Gulf of Mexico cruise provided the first opportunity for outreach among the marine archaeologists and for us to work as a team.   Each archaeologist brought their “favorite” site to the table for consideration.  The site discussions allowed each of us to give our perspective based on years of experience and familiarity with the region.  The team soon winnowed the options down to the five most promising sites for marine archaeology, biology, and geology based on our background knowledge and the data available.  Once chosen, the archaeology team forwarded the final archaeological investigation site recommendations to the NOAA lead scientist who once again challenged each site’s validity and its fit within the overall science mission.  Ultimately five archaeological sites were explored by the Okeanos Explorer’s team of scientists.

Framing and Machinery from an iron hull shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico. Image courtesty of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

Although the technology needed to transmit the imagery to shore allowing us to direct the missions and discuss in real time what we were seeing was impressive, it was in the public outreach that we, as archaeologists, found our greatest satisfaction. Our ability to share these projects with our friends, coworkers, students, and most importantly our families gave us a special opportunity.  For brief moments, we were able to bring our friends and family into our world to share the excitement of discovery with us as it happened!   From the first dive on an archaeological site, a pile of wire rigging and rigging components from a sailing vessel, offices, classrooms, and homes streamed the live feeds of our dives, listening as the archaeological team threw out ideas about what the video was showing, guided the pilots to specific locations, and in general became the voices of sites  unseen for over a century.  If March Madness is a drain on office productivity in the U.S., the NOAA Okeanos Explorer cruise crashed office productivity across the globe.

Our colleagues at research companies, survey companies, oil and gas companies, accounting companies, energy companies, and universities watched our web stream to see what new discoveries waited thousands of feet below the Gulf of Mexico’s waters.  Social networking soon became part of the project as we posted the times for each dive, answered questions, and held open discussions on our Facebook pages.  Our spouses found themselves celebrities at work as their colleagues piled into their offices to watch the feed and ask questions.  Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) survey crews working offshore tuned into the feed to watch the video display shipwreck sites they had discovered a few scant months before.  Shipwreck mania took over the Offshore Technology Conference as Oil and Gas Companies wanted to know “whose site” was being looked at and when their location would be next.  Our phones rang, our bosses stopped through, our colleagues would sneak into our offices to watch each engaging moment of discovery and discourse.  We were the new greatest reality show our colleagues had ever seen.

Image showing the bow and bow anchor of a copper clad sailing vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. Image courtesty of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

At the close of each day’s dive we made our ways home to our spouses who would pepper us with questions about what they saw on the screen, who Paasch was, why was everyone so excited about Lophelia coral, or what was so impressive about a pile of wire rigging?  These were the moments that made the technology and the public outreach human.  There we sat drawing pictures, sharing stories, and engaging our spouses, in many cases for the first time, in our “daily” lives in a way that simply wasn’t possible at any other time.  Such a “Eureka” moment happened in our house after we looked at the second wreck site, which turned out to be an iron hulled sailing ship similar to Barque Elissa ( where my spouse and I were married.  Imagine my husband’s shock when, sitting in his office at work, he realized “that looks just like ELISSA!”  Suddenly my work took on a whole new level of interest, intrigue, and possibilities.

The technology to get us to the sites, and the interactions it enabled made the 2012 Gulf of Mexico project one of a kind in the archaeological community, but the opportunities it offered in terms of outreach within our individual spheres of influence were magnified exponentially.  What just a few years ago would have been a project with limited exposure now became a global experience, shared through each individual person and then shared again through their families, children, spouses, colleagues, and clients.  Archaeologists, and scientists in general are just beginning to grasp the limitless opportunities for exploration and outreach those programs such as the Okeanos Explorer cruises can provide.  No longer is the question how to do it, but rather where will we go next and what discoveries await us?

 Read the other posts for Tech Week, all about public archaeology and underwater archaeology!

The Reconstruction and Conservation of Belle

From February to late April 1997, the Texas Historical Commission (THC), under the Direction of Dr. James Bruseth, carefully documented and disassembled the remains of the barque-longue Belle.  The fourth vessel added to the colonizing fleet of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, Belle, sank in the Texas coastal waters of Matagorda Bay, in the winter of 1687.  The loss of the vessel deprived the La Salle and the French settlers under his command, an opportunity of water-borne escape or resupply, and the colony failed within a few short months.

Although the location of wreck site was discovered in 1995, it was not until large pumps had drained the Matagorda Bay waters from a double-walled cofferdam in September of 1996 that the THC archaeologists could fathom the scope and breadth of the discovery.  All totaled, over the next eight months, more than a million artifacts of varying sizes, shapes, and composition emerged from the bog at the bottom of the cofferdam.  The largest artifact, comprising approximately 35% its original volume was the remains of Belle.  All of the finds, discovered after September 1996, were shipped to the Conservation Research Laboratory (CRL) at Texas A&M University.  The similar missions, but varying expertise of the two state agencies, formed an extraordinary partnership that bolstered the stabilization of both the “colonial-kit” of small material cultural finds, and the vessel herself.

During the course of the four month disassembly, twice weekly, a shipment of timbers made the 200 mile trip from Matagorda Bay to the CRL.  By the date that the final timbers were delivered in early May, 384 principal timbers weighing in excess of 23,000 pounds were in the lab’s storage vats awaiting stabilization.  CRL Director, Dr Donny L. Hamilton tasked his staff to develop a plan to stabilize the timber in toto instead of individually.  His concern was that the multi-degraded state of the waterlogged timber would inhibit alignment of plank to frames in a post stabilization reconstruction.  Since the final goal for the artifact was a elaborate museum display, an equally difficult challenge was to overcome the physics that impact the display of any watercraft structure, at sea level – air is 784 times less dense than water, the medium for which the structure was designed, and those forces can generate considerable stress and strain on already degraded elements.  Modern museum practice seldom employs rows of artifact cases with rigidly ordered object dichotomies, and few museums abide by the classical notions of kunstkammer, or “cabinet of curiosities”. The modern museum endeavors to educate and inspire its audience toward further discovery, all the while competing with alternative suppliers of entertainment for a limited amount of leisure revenue (Casey: 80). Cast against the backdrop of this theory, the display of Belle, or any archaeological ship remains represent somewhat of a paradox: a large, static, often seemingly lifeless object, but one possessing a certain vitality and characteristics and project of a sense-of-place that can easily pique visitor curiosity.

To bring hundreds of friable, fragmented, and waterlogged pieces into a well supported meaningful unit, pre-stabilization, while balancing representation of the artifact’s significance required an elaborate decision making process that could have only been achieved by drawing on aspects of “whole systems engineering”.  It was this “whole thinking” approach that lead to the creation of an endoskeleton of individually cast, carbon fiber laminates, the ability to modify that support structure to allow the hull to again be laid at 69 degrees, and ultimately a methodology to freeze-dry the timbers.  The initial timber and structural stabilization plan called for a “two-step” procedure to imbibe low and high molecular weights of Polyethylene glycol (PEG) into the timber before a controlled dehydration (Hoffman:1986).  Reconstruction of the timbers commenced in 2000 and the reconstruction and laminate casting had been completed by 2004.  In 2008, with the cost of PEG skyrocketing (a hydrocarbon based product its production cost mirrors fluctuations in crude oil prices) and having only completed 70% of the first aqueous bath with the low molecular weight PEG, our partners at the THC asked if there was a procedure that could be instituted to reduce costs.  Four alternative methods were proposed and subjected to peer review.  The unanimous consensus was to follow a protocol of freeze-drying the individual timbers in a chamber large enough that no individual element had to be intentionally broken or cut.  That way, less low molecular weight PEG would be needed, and once disassembled again, the timbers could be consolidated in vats that would reduce the quantity of required high molecular weight PEG by 85%.

Having first been considered a viable stabilization method for wet organic archaeological materials in the mid to late 1960s, freeze-drying is not a new stabilization procedure (Ambrose: 1971). Yet, application of the methodology has to date been generally limited to small or medium sized items, not large integrated structures with complex curves.  Several smaller craft have been successfully freeze-dried.  The reconstruction of a Sixteenth-Century Basque Chalupa (1998), freeze-dried by Parks Canada (Moore: 1998) and the Bronze-Age Dover Boat freeze dried by the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth, UK have both yielded satisfactory results.  The difficulty in freeze-drying larger ship timbers are the twists and compound curves of the hull and ceiling planks.  When both free and bound water is driven off, or desorbed, during the lyophilization process the physical properties of the wood shifts along the ductility scale from malleable to brittle.  In other words, the shape that the plank holds entering the process will be its final shape upon completion.  Timbers not placed on molds that accurately mimic the curves and twists of the hull shape may never again fit the hull shape.  If placed in the freeze-dryer flat any attempt to recreate, or force the curve after the process would most likely result in cracking or splitting of the timber.  Fortunately, three-dimensional recording technologies have made considerable advances in the last decade and following a reconstruction of Belle in the Lab’s 60’ x 20’ x 12’ vat it was digitally recorded in order to delineate the lines and loft molds that hold to the proper shape of the hull curvature.

On molds in the 40’ long and 8’ diameter product chamber the timbers, imbibed water and PEG are rapidly frozen to temperatures that exceed minus 40o C.  Thermal couples placed on the surface and situated in the interior of the timber, monitor the temperature and sublimation of the ice.  Once completely frozen, a vacuum is applied to the product chamber and reduced to pressures as low as 150 millitorr.  The low temperature and pressure allow the ice in the wood to sublimate, or shift from a solid to a vapor, skipping the liquid phase.  Once all the timbers have completed the freeze-drying process the hull will be reconstructed once again, this time in the public-eye on the main floor of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, TX.  Scheduled starting date is November 2013.

Read the rest of the Tech Week posts, all about public archaeology and underwater archaeology!


  • Ambrose, W.
    • 1971      “Freeze-drying of swamp degraded wood” in Conservation of Wooden Objects:  New York Conference on Conservation of Stone and Wooden Objects, preprints of the contributions, 7-13 June, 1970.  New. York: The International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 53-58.
  • Casey, Valarie.
    • 2005    “Staging Meaning; Performance in the Modern Museum”.  TDR 49 (3) 2005: 78-95.
  • Clark, P.
    • 2004      The Dover Bronze Age boat in context: society and water transport in prehistoric Europe.  Oxford, UK: Oxbow.
  • Hoffman, Per.
    • 1986      “On the Stabilization of Waterlogged Oakwood with PEG.  II Designing a Two-Step Treatment for Multi-Quality Timbers,” Studies in Conservation Vol. 31. N3 Aug: 103-113.
  • Moore, C.
    • 1998      “Reassembly of a Sixteenth-Century Basque Chalupa” Material History Review 48 (Fall 1998) 38-44.