Below the Surface: Theory in Maritime Archaeology

Room:    Teaching room 2
Time:      13:30–17:30
Format: Standard paper session
Organisers: Sara Rich (Coastal Carolina University) — Peter Campbell (Cranfield University)

Maritime archaeologists themselves frequently acknowledge a lack of theory in our own middle-aged subdiscipline. We tend to seek answers to our research questions by exploring technological solutions (underwater visualization methods, digital mapping and modeling, etc) over theoretical innovations that require greater disciplinary introspection. Arguably, this general disengagement from philosophy and critical theory is one of the reasons that maritime and nautical archaeology have remained in relative isolation, developing separately from terrestrial archaeology and certainly from other fields in the humanities and social sciences. However, the issues that humans face in the Anthropocene — from global warming to global pandemics — call for transdisciplinary cooperation, and for thinking together beyond the confines of the human-centered scientific tradition. For example, areas of inquiry, such as the “blue humanities” and “oceanic thinking”, draw directly on our past, and the theoretically engaged maritime archaeologist might contribute significantly to them. In this panel, we invite papers that scratch deeply below the surface, by investigating the possibilities of how contemporary critical theory, current philosophical movements, or even past philosophies that resurface ‘hauntologically’, might act to clarify—or muddy—the archaeological waters.


Author(s): Matthew Harpster (Koç University)

Central to this session’s theme is the necessity of incorporating theory into maritime archaeological method and practice – how it may help us engage with transdisciplinary thinking, or how current critical theory may clarify elements of our subdiscipline. Yet, I argue that maritime archaeology has not lacked theory, we lack the explicit recognition of the theories we engage. In many ways, maritime archaeologists in North America and the United Kingdom have incorporated elements of archaeological theory since the middle of the 20th century and the beginning of the practice; we are not atheists but adjacent. Components of culture-historical and culture-processual interpretive approaches, internalist and contextual frameworks from the history of science and technology, and even post-processual perceptions, can be identified in our literature. To me, then, a key challenge for maritime archaeology in the coming decade is to change our relationship with theory, to no longer receive and respond but to create and critique.


Author(s): Peter Campbell (Cranfield University)

Despite a continuous discourse of archaeology under water since the 15th century, maritime archaeology is regarded as a relatively recent field following the advent of the field concurrent with New Archaeology in 1960. Two theories loom large in the field, often seen as foundational to the subject. The first is the shell-first and frame-first ship construction and the so-called “transition” from shell-based to frame-based ship construction in Antiquity. This theory, as argued by luminaries such as Olof Hasslöf, Lionel Casson, and Richard Steffy, among others, has provided the grand framework for nautical archaeology from the late 1950s through today. The second is Maritime Cultural Landscapes (MCL), which is perhaps the most influential theory in maritime archaeology over the last thirty years. Proposed by Christer Westerdahl, he applied cognitive landscape theory to the sea.

The ‘transition’ and MCL have made significant and lasting contributions to the field. These two theories have attained the level of ‘sacred cow’, an idiom that refers to a topic that is immune to criticism or questioning. However, the ‘transition’ is based on theory that is 65 years old and cognitive landscapes theory is over 40 years old. New ideas from contemporary philosophy and design offer challenges to these paradigms. This paper examines maritime archaeology’s sacred cows in light of new developments in theory and philosophy: MCL through the lens of Object-Oriented Ontology and the ‘transition’ through disruptive innovation, or non-linear technological development.


Author(s): Sara Rich (Coastal Carolina University)

Paul Virilio famously stated (twice) that the invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck. His sensible warning to consider the eventual and inevitable failure of our technologies has, of course, not been heeded, and the result is widespread ecological ruination. Waterways are no exception, as shipwrecks often contain and comprise toxic and pollutive materials that harm marine organisms. One could argue then, that the role of the maritime archaeologist in the Anthropocene might be to reframe research questions so that focus is directed to those interactions between the marine (biota) and the maritime (heritage), and that the resurrectionist approach that has dominated nautical archaeology be reconsidered altogether. This normative statement is put to the test with a 4,000-year-old waterlogged dugout canoe that was illegally excavated from the Cooper River in South Carolina, USA. Upon retrieval, the tribal entities of South Carolina were brought into consultation with archaeologists and conservators to discuss how to proceed with the canoe’s remains. The tribal representatives reached a consensus to preserve the canoe’s remains with PEG and to display it in the state museum. This scenario presents a difficulty in relation to a preliminary theory of failure, and even extinction, as inevitable and maybe even productive. Therefore, this paper will evaluate the scenario and attempt to overcome the challenge it represents, to continue working toward a theory of failure.


Author(s): Delia Ni Chiobhain Enqvist (Linnaeus University)

When asked about my profession, which happens quite often in polite society nowadays, I have two options (apart from lying, which is not very polite). If I wish for the conversation to end I say I am an archaeologist and, often, I am left alone. If there is no escape then my answer of being a maritime archaeologist sees my cool factor increase exponentially. Think, a girl doing that! Cue the widening of eyes and questions about gold.

My anecdote is not to suggest that I am cool, rather it is to illustrate how identity and image are very important aspects of maritime archaeology, reaching far beyond casual career conversations. These concepts are most often discussed in relation to ethics within the field – such as the “dark side” of commercial treasure hunting (Flatman, 2007: 77) – but not how the fields’ origins still influence the maritime archaeology of today. Identity includes how we have set ourselves apart from the greater discipline of archaeology, as specialists working in a hostile environment, dealing with archaeological sites not normally found on land. Image is related to how we view ourselves and our work, as well as how other professionals and the public perceive our work and results.

The recent explosion of digital techniques used in maritime archaeology has resulted in many older methodologies simply turning digital, circumnavigating any critical analysis of the methodologies themselves, what precisely we are communicating and thus not realising the full potential of maritime archaeology for knowledge production. This has multiple consequences, but it is the effect on scientific communication of maritime archaeology that I wish to focus on in this paper. Archaeology has already passed the digital turn, yet I argue that a critical analysis of maritime archaeology and its longtime love affair with technology is required.


Author(s): Chris Begley (Transylvania University)

Shipwreck archaeology offers a unique, temporally constrained snapshot of the past. This allows us the opportunity to explore changes with tighter temporal control than a typical terrestrial archaeological site, in which the typical deposition patterns make it difficult to isolate these fleeting moments of change.

Here, I detail a recent maritime archaeological project in which I explore the ways in which people create and recreate identities in times of rapid and significant cultural change. Using a recent project in El Salvador, I explore the ways in which shipwreck archaeology provides insights into the ways in which people define the meaning of things at a point where the dominant ideology is changing.  I approach these broad questions through a maritime archaeological investigation of material culture dating to the beginnings of the Republic of El Salvador, when national, class, and other forms of identity were being renegotiated. These questions, not only relevant to an understanding of national history, remain salient in contemporary El Salvador.

My approach focuses on consumption and the social use of material culture, reflect a growing body of scholarship that has been lauded as a fundamental transformation in anthropology. Following recent scholarship in materiality and consumption, including Appadurai (1986), Dietler (2005, 2010), Miller (1987, 1995), and Mullins (2011), I focus on identity formation as reflected in the ways in which people use and define things. I explore the ways identity and consumption is shaped by larger structural and systemic realities, and how that is reflected in and shaped by material culture. Maritime archaeology allows novel insight into these questions during exploration of a unique and special archaeological site representing cargo being imported into a context where Salvadorans are redefining themselves in a postcolonial reality.


Author(s): Susana Arena Vallejos (Memorial University)

Ships can entangle numerous people(s) and things at multiple times and in multiple places simultaneously. Yet, this complexity is seldom reflected in the interpretations we are confronted with inside and around maritime archaeological museums. Despite a human-centric bias in archaeology, many people’s connections to the artifacts are absent from these spaces and the narratives produced in them. Who qualifies as human and who does not is rarely made explicit or openly discussed. This paper considers the conceptual borders and hierarchies more traditional approaches place around these heritage artifacts and how they can obscure the presence of not only nonhumans but also the subhuman others objectified and denied their experiences and ability to define those experiences for themselves. As calls for equity grow among immigrants and historically marginalized groups, a focused engagement with humans and things beyond set limits is made all the more urgent. In this paper, the author discusses the tracing of presences and experiences excluded from archaeological and museological territories by increasing their priority.


Author(s): Chelsea Cohen (University of Pennsylvania)

The creation of place in the space between land and water has long been represented in the maritime archaeological lexicon as the maritime cultural landscape. Developed within the subdiscipline, the landscape it suggests was integral moving maritime archaeologies beyond site-based particularism and naval architecture typologies. As broader archaeological thought expanded past people on the land and toward recognizing complex webs of engagement and interaction, maritime archaeology’s use of its specialized cultural landscape has remained largely static, emphasizing shorelines as a bridge to oceanic access. In examining the waves of European colonialism that began in the 16th century, the maritime cultural landscape falls dangerously short of engaging with the durable consequences of overseas expansion. This colonialism was inherently amphibious, with waterways serving both as points of access to terrestrial resources in occupied lands and as agents capable of structuring human lives and interactions. Drawing from assemblage theory and amphibious anthropology, this paper endeavors to reconsider the sea-shore binary that the maritime cultural landscape complicated but never obfuscated. Focusing on the waterfront excavations of an 18th-century port in the British colony of Virginia, I examine the production of place between land and water as a co-creation between the human and the material. Multiple instances of ship hull reuse in the wharves of this port necessitate consideration of how ships and sailing were a small part of amphibious colonialisms that necessitated adaptive familiarity with plural physical media. Viewing these ships as post-structuralist assemblages of living trees, maritime timbers, and urban infrastructural palimpsest set in three different mediums, I consider the plural roles these hull components played as part of a colonial program that was built on but did not end at waters’ edge.