Maritime archaeology – What is at issue in northern Europe

    Lecture given at the Interim Conference of the International Council of Maritime Museums (ICMM) at Roskilde, Denmark, on 5 September 2000, by Thijs J. Maarleveld


In this regional overview I integrate many parts of the world, besides Europe. There are two reasons for this:

  1. the kind of 'maritime archaeology' that Europe is exporting is more problematic than the maritime archaeology it features at home, and
  2. what happens in other parts of the world is also very relevant to northern Europe.

As a consequence, we can contentedly bury ourselves in our own interesting research and stop short at congratulating each other that, despite problems of limited funding and of limited juridical scope and despite all sorts of frustrating developments in present-day society, some of us do such relevant research. 

Or, we can try to analyse the larger image, try to analyse what worldwide developments are qualifying maritime archaeology today and what worldwide developments will qualify collecting, research and its meaning tomorrow. Without any modesty, I would presently like to follow the latter course.

This means that I will frustrate your expectation that once you invite an archaeologist to speak you will have nice pictures of exotic or regular material culture of the past shown to you, and that you can sit back and enjoy. I will show you none. 

It is early in the morning. I presume you had a good cup of coffee. And later in the day you will be able to enjoy newly excavated maritime material in abundance and you will even be enabled to sail in 're'-constructed early medieval boats: constructions of the present-day, certainly, but constructed with so much feedback of archaeological research and original material that – contrary to many other examples of 're'-constructed ships in the heritage industry, that we all represent – one could adequately call some of these ships replicas or 're'-constructions rather than full inventions of today.

So, no nice pictures of nice items. What then? I will certainly mention some of the excavations, some of the research which has been taking place over the last few years. As a teacher in maritime archaeology, it is my business to know about them (not to miss too much) and so I can use some of it to illustrate my discourse. I will, however, only use it as an illustration. What I want to bring forward is the way in which maritime archaeology fits in with changing views on heritage, changing views on private and government responsibilities and changing views on intrinsic and commercial valuation.

To start off with, I would like to sketch the development of the discipline. Secondly, I will illustrate some of the up-sides and some of the downsides of that development. Thirdly, I will try and put that development in perspective of where we stand now, what is at stake.

The discipline

Let us start with the development. In order to assess it in a meaningful way for the present audience I would like to trace some of its traditions back to the eighteenth or at least the early nineteenth century. First, however, let us linger a bit on the year 1972, not yet thirty years ago. There are two reasons why I want to linger on that year, why I think it is a hallmark. Both have to do with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. The first is that in 1972 UNESCO published a volume called 'Underwater Archaeology; a nascent discipline'. I already pointed out that I would like to trace the genesis of parts of the maritime archaeological discipline back a bit further, but in 1972 it was still deemed nascent rather than mature, and quite rightly so. I will come back to that. The second reason to take 1972 as an appropriate hallmark is another one that I will come back to at several points in this lecture. Again it has to do with UNESCO: 1972 was the year that the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (usually called the World Heritage Convention) was concluded. This convention, as we shall see, implies a major structuring of the heritage philosophy worldwide.

Let us, however, first look at the hallmark book (1). It contains no less than 27 articles. In the vision of the editors, UNESCO (aided by Honor Frost and Angela Croome), the 25 authors and the subjects they discuss belong together. On hindsight, all of them have indeed some relevance for the discipline as we see it today. Nevertheless, there is extremely little coherence between the subjects, and one would wonder whether the one author knew the other. There is relatively much technical substance. For instance, there is a history of underwater photography(2); there is an impromptu on fossilised sessile organisms as a geological feature dating sea-level changes in the long (very long) past(3). What there is on archaeological research addresses very diverse aspects in very diverse ways. In fact, some aspects dealt with are truly experimental, both technically and in substance, whereas others are clearly part of a long-standing and mature tradition of management and research.

On hindsight it is relatively easy to recognise three, basically separate traditions within the development of the maritime archaeological discipline(4). Even within these three, which I will elucidate shortly, there are substantial differences that come with the different periods or aspects of society to which the archaeological deposits dealt with refer. However, in between the three the approach, the developments and the way of thinking are absolutely distinct. For discussion's sake I gave the three traditions a label and although I think the label refers to something relevant, one should not interpret the label too absolutely.

 1. Mediterranean

The first tradition I labelled Mediterranean. It goes hand in hand with classical archaeology and has an emphasis on the classical world and the classical period. Also, it developed in an area where the overall archaeological tradition saw wholesale looting by antiquarianists and art-dealers feeding preponderantly northern European markets and museums since the Renaissance, and where consequently a set of restrictive regulations were put in place since the emergence of the modern nation state at the end of the nineteenth century. For an understanding of the shifts in ethics, the position of museums and the roles of archaeologists, a recent essay by Lord Renfrew is absolutely indispensable(5). Firmly embedded in this 'classical' world, a specific tradition of underwater maritime archaeology developed even when diving was still restricted to hard-hat diving. It boomed as soon as SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) was developed and Jacques-Yves Cousteau started his promotional work for the silent world worldwide. This maritime archaeological tradition features:

  • comprehensive survey;
  • repressive protective legislation;
  • a sharp division between archaeologists and 'clandestini';
  • forty years of significant archaeological excavations.

George Bass, Çemal Pulak, Cape Gelidonya, Ulu Burun; the sheer quality of the deposits in combination with the sheer quality of their meticulous research added significantly to our understanding of the Bronze Age economy (c. 1200 BC), in which of course the maritime dimension is one of the most important dimensions, but a dimension as good as absent in previous historical research(6). Maritime archaeology reveals a source of knowledge of incomparable nature, offering vistas on the past which are more detailed or fine-grained than those produced by many other sources.

 2. North European

Mary RoseThe second tradition evident in maritime archaeology as it stands now is perhaps the tradition most familiar to you as members of the ICMM. It is the tradition exemplified by the recovery of the 'Vasa' and the 'Mary Rose'. I called it Northern European. It finds its basis more in historical maritime research than in an understanding of archaeological deposits, of archaeological taphonomy or an understanding of archaeological theory and source-criticism. It is characterised by:

  • a historic approach, where the documentary sources dominate what to look for in the archaeological record;
  • an approach in which to search for a particular wreck is seen as more meaningful than the survey of other, as yet unidentified sites;
  • a legislative approach based on rights as opposed to responsibility;
  • a sliding scale of commercially and/or academically interested parties;
  • emphasis on display rather than on research.

The upside of this tradition is that in the good examples it produces wonderful, empathic displays, the displays that you are familiar with, the goodies that you hoped me to show and in which stead I am boringly trying to analyse the matter. The downside has quite a few faults to it. Some of the problems are epistemological: the approach means to look for what one already knows, in order to illustrate that fact. That is exactly what Anders Franzén did(7). That is exactly what Alexander McKee did(8). It is archaeology as a producer of illustrative material rather than archaeology as a discipline with its own specific limits and assets, assets which should be put to right use: archaeology as a discipline is specifically strong in questions of longue durée, whereas in this tradition the emphasis is on the événement, the event (9). The relatively negative assessment of the epistemological quality of anonymous – or still anonymous – deposits of wreck in this tradition is another side of the same coin.

Within this easily graspable tradition one often sees that people frantically try to identify a wrecksite, put a name to it, and wreck everything before even assessing what is there, before being able to conclude that it concerns another (and perhaps for other reasons more interesting) archaeological deposit. We see awful examples of that, often in very good faith. Perhaps the so-called Tudor warship off Alderney in the Channel is a good example(10). For an archaeologist the disquieting aspect of this approach is that it is so 'easily graspable', that one needs hardly to be informed about the first thing of archaeological data production and archaeological source-criticism to go for it. This has as its consequence that most – if not all – of the mistakes made in two (or more) hundred years of development of archaeology are liable to reoccur and do so constantly. These include interpretative aspects and aspects of methodology, but also those self-defeating antiquarian approaches to collect goodies for goodies' sake, to sell off bits and keep others instead of viewing an archaeological assemblage as an organic whole.

 3. Prehistoric

The third and again different tradition is labelled 'Prehistoric' in quotation marks. The label is not apt, as it is not meant to have chronological meaning. I chose it for the simple reason that at least until recently there tended to be a discrepancy in the archaeologies that were being taught at northern European universities between 'classical archaeology' and 'prehistoric or Northwest-European archaeology'. A similar division can be seen in the American traditions. Medieval and Post-Medieval archaeology has tended to absorb aspects of both, with a lot of its source-related theory derived from 'prehistoric' archaeology. That is the reason for this label.  SkuldelevThe maritime archaeology that you will experience here in the centre (or centres) at Roskilde all falls within this third tradition, regardless to what period it concerns. This is so at present, but it was no less true in 1972 when the first piecing together of the Skuldelev ships in the Skibshallen was in full swing(11). The tradition is characterized by:

  • a geographical, ecological and stratigraphical approach in field studies;
  • a comprehensive geographical approach in protective legislation;
  • a significant contribution by non-vocational archaeologists.

The last characteristic holds true for the other, northern European tradition as well.

1972 and coherence

Looking back at 1972 we may conclude that some of the work presented then stood in firmly mature relationship with established traditions of research, but that as a whole – and perhaps through the lack of coherence between the three approaches I sketched – maritime archaeology was nascent and not mature at all. The 1972 book shows little coherence. What then was the unifying factor, what was and is the reason to bring such disparate information together, what is the reason that it is useful that the three traditions interact? The answer is simple: it is not research, but it is the challenge to formulate a comprehensive approach to the protection and management of a newly available heritage resource, of which the source quality is incomparable, but which is being opened up with such uncontrolled force and uncontrolled speed, with all actors homing in on what is in it for them, scavenging its until then pristine nature, that one should speak of a very finite resource indeed!

Mediterranean wrecks

Let me show you a histogram compiled by A.J. Parker of Bristol University concerning the maritime archaeological discoveries made in the Mediterranean during the first 35 years of SCUBA exploration(12): every diver, professional, amateur, wholesale looter or clandestino homed in on the until then un-revealed amphora-mounds ensuing from wreck of classical cargoes. The amphora abundance quickly became legendary. Of all the more than twelve hundred discoveries on which Parker could trace some information, more than 90% was raised to legend, without proper on-site consideration. Only a few scores of such magnificent sources of information are properly researched, with questions asked, hypotheses formulated, etcetera. The use and intricate conversion of raw materials in the relevant shipbuilding tradition – timber of strangely rich varieties – is one aspect on which research (especially French research(13)) has brought wholly new data. Retracing the spoils of amphora-heaps, Parker is able to link them with longue-durée developments(14). He even stands up for detailed, research-oriented, archaeological documentation of dispersed and looted sites(15). Now that we are better equipped to formulate such research we should stand up and protect the next lot from undergoing the same inconsiderate destruction for goodies, in which each artefact is just an artefact, but loses its context and most of its informative nature.

It is one of the major challenges to which that other event of 1972, the conclusion of the World Heritage Convention committed so many states. I know that when I say World Heritage Convention, you immediately think of the World Heritage List, and quite rightly so. The list is the instrument that the convention creates for the specific protection of sites and monuments of evaluated outstanding universal value. However, that practical instrument is just one of the ways in which the philosophy of the convention takes shape. The philosophy itself goes far beyond that: it recognises a common responsibility for the common heritage of humankind. This is an important principle, not only for known heritage, but especially when dealing with as yet unknown archaeological values. It implies that the Danes of present-day Roskilde have a right and a responsibility to evaluate and control the maritime archaeological values of the ancient fjord and harbour, but that they exercise these responsibilities on behalf of the world community at large (and they do so pretty well). Moreover, the philosophy extends to where no one previously went: to the underwater world and the maritime spaces.


When reviewing developments in maritime archaeology over the past thirty years, the friction between the various traditions and the efforts to bring them in line with the World Heritage philosophy are perhaps the most significant. One sees that within the several states of northern and southern Europe responsibility for the underwater archaeological heritage is being taken. From this, significant new research ensues.

The German Länder all have their heritage offices, most of which have come to adopt some maritime heritage management in their duties. Poland, Estonia, all the Nordic countries have their respective services. My country, The Netherlands, now boasts its integrated Netherlands Institute for Ship and Underwater Archaeology (ROB/NISA), which can build on the rescue-work during the reclamation of large tracts of the Zuiderzee and which can build on twenty years of underwater research in appalling working conditions but with utmost conservation and challengingly new maritime information revealed(16). France has been mentioned and we could add Italy and the Spanish Comunidádes Autónomas. In all those organisations one sees that heritage management and the necessary research are being combined on the basis of it being a public responsibility and one sees that in the maritime context as on dry land that philosophy works. Culturally all the offices have to deal with two of the three traditions presented at the least and the now adolescent state of maritime archaeology brings the three closer together.

Why, if nascent in 1972, the discipline as a whole can still not be called mature 28 years later. Most football-players (or divers like myself, for that matter) start senescence shortly after. This is because, despite all the examples above and despite the World Heritage Convention, despite longstanding traditions of mutual co-operation in archaeology, despite guidance from such international guidelines as:

Despite all this, the conviction that heritage management is a public responsibility is not yet fully engrained everywhere. Britain will certainly come around. Installing an ill-conceived emergency Act shortly after 1972, in 1973, it is now preparing for English Heritage to take a role in management beyond the shoreline(17)

Portugal, after a long tradition of public responsibility in heritage affairs suddenly disclaimed this role in 1993 in an utmost act of Thatcherist privatisation. It had such deplorable results that after a change of government in October 1995 the old system of heritage legislation was reinstalled and new protective legislation was prepared and put in place in 1997. The Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática (CNANS) was established and in an extremely short period of time incomparable information as to the development of Iberian shipbuilding came to light and was evaluated(18). The lasting negative impact of the unfortunate interlude is that at present many of the southern lusiphone countries endulge in giving inconsiderate salvage contracts for historical material to technologically advanced firms and adventurers engaging in treasure-hunts from bases in the northern world. Such countries now indulge in selling off their heritage instead of taking a responsible stand.

It is especially in the context of particularistic maritime exploration that much of the hard-learned experience of over two hundred years of archaeology, of coping with diverse interests, of coping with the interest of objects and the interest of sites, in coping with co-operation between the management of immovable monuments and the management of collections, that much of that hard-learned experience which resulted in guidelines and ethical codes, that much of that hard-learned experience is forgotten for convenience sake or just out of ignorance.


Where exploration now extends to the deep sea and where one is inclined to take the good experience of shallower waters there, and not the bad experience, UNESCO has again taken the lead, as it should as guardian of the World Heritage Convention and as the platform of world-wide cultural discourse. The member states (and obvious non-member states such as the U.S. for that matter) have started negotiations on a convention on the specific substance of maritime archaeology: the cultural heritage under water. The process started in the mid-nineties and has gained a lot of momentum in the three preliminary negotiation rounds. Over a hundred states send delegations to the negotiations. It is a fascinating process. In the course of the negotiation rounds many concepts of law and ethics are reconciled. 

A hallmark is that the world-wide NGO on heritage management, ICOMOS, published a Charter (see above), which is accepted as the convention's basis. On other points views still diverge. More important, however, is to mention that interests diverge. They do not diverge between member states of UNESCO as such, but they diverge between public responsibility on the one hand and private interest, as conceived from a very limited viewpoint.

At present, a very small community, not of salvage firms as united in the International Salvage Union, but of marginal risk-investors venturing deep exploration and exploration in third world countries from a technological basis in the North, have started a considerable lobby. And you, spokespeople of maritime collections, are the intermediate target. 

The lobby seeks respectable backing in order to delay the process of negotiation, to be able to try and exploit and destroy in the deep sea along lines that art dealers and museums have long stopped to follow for such areas as Egypt or other parts of the Ancient Near East. Without some knowledge on the way in which common responsibility for immovable heritage has taken shape by trial and error, an interested layman is easily misled. I take the liberty of pointing towards your own ICMM 1993 Barcelona Resolutions on Underwater Archaeology. Your NGO committed itself in those resolutions to the 'public responsibility'. In weighing the pros and the cons related to adding a few items to a collection ICMM took an ethical stand: provenance from obscure, illegal excavation is definitely to be condemned. As long as, however, we have to do without a world-wide regulation in the form of a convention, the situation for the oceans is largely Mare Liberum: hardly anything that is inappropriate and that would be illegal in most territorial waters can be classified as an offence in the world's common waters. The detrimental effect (and its mending) can be seen in the Portuguese experience I mentioned.

To conclude, I wish you a very pleasant experience in the maritime archaeological centre here in Roskilde, and I wish us all a good and considerate co-operation between maritime archaeology and maritime museums, between the immovable heritage management and the management of collections. Both will benefit if we follow a precautionary course in a spirit of research. With the characteristic th-lisp of a Dutchman I would like to finish with my motto:

What matters in
underwater archaeology
is the thinking
not the sinking.

Thijs J. Maarleveld
, 2000


  1. UNESCO 1972.
  2. UNESCO 1972, 193-203: D. Rebikoff, History of underwater photography.
  3. UNESCO 1972, 185-191: P. Sanlaville, Vermetus dating of changes in sea-level.
  4. Maarleveld 1996.
  5. Renfrew 1999.
  6. Bass 1996.
  7. Franzén 1960.
  8. McKee 1982.
  9. Braudel 1969.
  10. despite the material culture found, which points in another direction, no effort has been spared to classify it as an English warship, Bound 1998.
  11. Olsen & Crumlin-Pedersen 1969.
  12. Parker 1992, 549 Fig. 3.
  13. e.g. Rival 1991.
  14. Parker 1992, 8-33.
  15. Parker 1990, 338, also Gibbins 1990.
  16. Maarleveld 1998.
  17. Firth 1995.
  18. Alves 2000.
  19. Prott 1997

References cited

Alves, F.J.S., [2000][in print]: Proceedings of the International Symposium on Archaeology of Medieval and Modern Ships of Iberian-Atlantic Tradition, Lisbon.

Bass, G.F., 1996: Shipwrecks in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, Bodrum / College Station.

Bound, M. (ed.), 1998: Excavating Ships of War, Oswestry, 64-83.

Braudel, F., 1969: Écrits sur l'histoire, Paris.

Firth, A., 1995: Ghosts in the Machine, in: Cooper et al. (eds.), Managing Archaeology, London / New York, 51-67.

Franzén, A., 1960: The Warship Wasa, Stockholm.

Gibbins, D., 1990: Analytical approaches in maritime archaeology: a Mediterranean perspective, Antiquity 64, 376-389.

Maarleveld, Th.J., 1996: Underwater heritage management: cultural and legislative perspective. Analecta Praehistorica Leidensia 26, 1993(1996), 251-265.

Maarleveld, Th.J., 1998: Archaeological heritage management in Dutch waters: exploratory studies, (diss.) Leiden.

McKee, A., 1982: How we found the Mary Rose, London.

Olsen, O. and O. Crumlin-Pedersen, 1969: Fem vikingeskibe fra Roskilde Fjord, Roskilde.

Parker, A.J. 1990: Classical Antiquity: the maritime dimension. Antiquity 64, 335-346.

Parker, A.J., 1992: Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean & the Roman Provinces, Oxford.

Prott, L.V., 1997: Safeguarding the underwater cultural heritage: UNESCO moves ahead, Museum International, 49/1, 39 a.f.

Renfrew, C., 1999: Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: the ethical crisis in archaeology, Amsterdam.

Rival, M., 1991: La charpenterie navale romaine, Paris.

UNESCO, 1972: Underwater Archaeology; a nascent discipline, Paris.

rev 2000

To Main Page Back to Nordic Underwater Archaeology