Greg Alexander

Hunting for sunken treasures

Baltimore Sun, July 9, 2006

When you’ve lived in the Mid-Atlantic for a while, it’s easy to take the Chesapeake Bay for granted. Sans for an occasional trip to Annapolis or St. Michaels or a look down while crossing the Bay Bridge on the way to one of the beach resorts, it’s possible to forget about the Bay and not realize its enormous influence on our area – not to mention its intriguing history. However, for those who are captivated by the past and don’t mind getting a little wet, there’s a growing, interesting field for you.

Although there are few undergraduate programs in the United States, underwater archaeology – or marine archaeology – is a fascinating field where students learn not only about shipwrecks in the classroom, but also dive into – excuse the pun – the field through survey work, fieldwork and other hands-on experiences.

One such opportunity can be found at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., where students can take an underwater archaeology class offered by the department of sociology and anthropology. “We try to give students a solid grounding in the discipline. We start with how the field has developed and how it differs from land-based archaeology,” says John L. Seidel, associate professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington College. Seidel, who was recruited to the school eight years ago to establish an archaeology program, says he always had an interest in maritime history but was trained on land sites when he was studying due to the lack of academic programs in underwater archaeology. “When I moved back to Maryland to teach in 1989, I was really struck by the importance of water in the Chesapeake. The Bay and its tributaries are a central part of the landscape, and from prehistoric times up through the 1800s, there were relatively few bridges and roads connecting much of the area. As a result, people traveled by water and were oriented to the water. So, archaeological sites and human activity don’t stop at the water’s edge – to understand what people were doing, you have to also look at the water.”

Seidel says that he first had to establish – with the assistance of the Maryland Historical Trust – a terrestrial archaeology program at the school. “Once that was established, we thought it was time to take advantage of our unique setting in the Chesapeake and start looking at the maritime component. Not only did we think that the water was a defining element of the region, but we also found that our students had an enormous interest in it,” Seidel says. Seidel credits the Maryland Historical Trust’s partnership with the school as a key to the short time it took to establish a program.

The Maryland Historical Trust’s underwater archeology program, the Maryland Maritime Archaeology Program, was created in 1988 to inventory and manage the state’s submerged cultural resources. In fact, Maryland is one of only nine states to have a dedicated underwater archaeology program, says Susan Langley, state underwater archaeologist. “We are very lucky. Maryland is a leader in generating reports, funding, projects and volunteer and public involvement,” says Langley, who notes that partnerships with the U.S. Navy, the National Park Service, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and other groups and agencies are key to the success of underwater archaeology. “These partnerships are necessary for funding assistance and to share knowledge and experiences,” she says. “Funding for large-scale projects can be daunting. For example, to raise the Hunley [the Civil War-era submarine that was raised in Charleston, S.C., in 2000], it cost $21 million.” Langley says that some of her current projects include an extensive survey of the Potomac for the U.S. Navy and a survey from Ocean City, Md., to Delaware. Langley also worked on the large wharf structure found at Pemberton Hall near Salisbury and in April, she conducted a workshop for Goucher College as part of the school’s historic preservation certificate.

The idea to conduct the workshop came via an advisory group for the certificate program, says Richard Wagner, director of the master of arts in historic preservation program at Goucher College, the only school in the country to offer historic preservation at the undergraduate, graduate and certificate level. “When we were forming the certificate program, we had advisory groups in Annapolis that suggested holding one-day workshops that students could take for credit for those students who had an interest in a particular subject like underwater archaeology. Having a workshop is great because it attracts people from different areas –? whether it’s a college student considering a career path in underwater archaeology, a high school student wanting to learn more about the field or adult students looking to enrich their lives,” says Wagner, who is also a partner in the architectural firm David H. Gleason Associates.

Langley says that Goucher contacted her to conduct the workshop, which she was willing to do on her own time. “There’s not much offered in underwater archaeology at the undergraduate level; it’s a great opportunity,” says Langley, who has also taught classes at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and in Thailand. Langley grew up in Canada and says that she first became interested in underwater archaeology through a friend who was involved in the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary. “At the undergraduate level, I was going to focus on fine arts history until a anthropology professor convinced me that there were job opportunities in underwater archaeology. I then took some law classes during graduate school, which has helped me tremendously because so much of what we do depends on legislation.”

At Washington College, Seidel says that the school aims to teach students about varied elements that can be found underwater – not only shipwrecks, but also less obvious kinds of remains such as wharves and docks, shipyards and even inundated terrestrial sites. “After all, people have been in the Chesapeake for over 13,000 years, arriving at a time when sea levels were much lower and the Chesapeake Bay didn’t even exist. Many of the earliest Native American sites were located on what is now the Continental Shelf or in the Susquehanna Valley – areas that have now been drowned by rising sea level,” he says. “After reviewing the types of remains they are likely to encounter, we look into the technologies for finding them, which have become quite sophisticated. We also talk about the problems of conserving the things you find and the ethical and legal issues in underwater archaeology.” Students also can take part in a project conducted by the Center for Environment & Society and the department of sociology-anthropology.

Langley urges students interested in the field to seek out volunteer fieldwork, be proficient in hardware and software troubleshooting and to obtain diving certification through master diver or rescue diver level.

Seidel says that graduates may find work in academia and museums, but there are even more jobs in the private sector and in government. “Most people are familiar with the Environmental Protection Act and other laws that require the government to take into account the effects of their activities on natural resources. What they don’t realize is that there are similar laws for ‘cultural resources,’ including archaeological sites. Whenever the government undertakes work that might damage such sites, they are required by law to assess the remains. This means that before a dredging project can be undertaken, for example, archaeologists must first survey the area and identify any sites. If the project cannot avoid sites in the project area, then the site must be excavated so that the information is not lost,” says Seidel.

“You really have to love what you do in this field. You won’t get wealthy, but I have had many opportunities and unique experiences that would not have been available to me in any other field,” says Langley.

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