You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone: Preservation and deterioration of historic shipwrecks

  • Gregory, David (Project participant)
  • Quinn, Rory (Project participant)
  • Normann, Gert (Project participant)

Project: Research

Project Details


“It is probable that a greater number of monuments of the skill and industry of man will, in the course of the ages, be collected together in the bed of the ocean than will exist at any other time on the surface of the continents”. Charles Lyell’s prediction in his work The Principles of Geology (1830) certainly rings true over 150 years since it was written. UNESCO estimate that there are over three million shipwrecks lying on the bottom of the world’s seas and
oceans. International (UNESCO, 2001; ICOMOS, 1996) and European (Valletta, 1992) legislation all advocate that underwater cultural heritage should, where possible, be protected in situ. Danish legislation (Museums Law, 2014, Chapter 8, §28) goes further to state that shipwrecks and other underwater cultural
heritage over 100 years old is protected by law. Such protection is essential to prevent deterioration from the effects of cultural impacts i.e. salvage, fishing. However, such legislation cannot protect underwater cultural heritage from the potential ravages of nature. Since their time of sinking, shipwrecks will be
exposed to a multitude of physical, chemical and biological processes, as well as cultural impacts that will affect their preservation. It is thus essential to be able to assess the effect the natural environment has had and will have on shipwrecks in the future should they be preserved in situ. The project has a societal impact as the results will be applicable to the improved management of
underwater cultural heritage. Academically it will be a significant development to work into formation processes, or how the archaeological record is formed, in underwater archaeology. This research area essentially began with the seminal 1977 publication Historic wreck sites and their environments (1977) by
Keith Muckelroy, one of the founding fathers of theoretical perspective of maritime archaeology. With his discussion on shipwreck formation processes, he introduced the idea that the environment is external to the shipwreck and the processes operating within it also determine what we see as archaeologists on the seabed. He used statistical models to clarify large bodies of data in order to discern patterns in the wrecking process and the resulting “observable seabed distribution” of a shipwreck, ideas that had never been proposed before. This coincided with processual archaeology’s call for a more scientific, analytic
methodology. Muckelroy's shipwreck formation theory is a classic model for interpretation of wreck sites and even today, his original paper are referenced regularly in studies on the archaeology of shipwrecks.
Within the current project the unique data set coupled with the use of GIS and the experience of the
applicant and collaborators involved, who have worked extensively over the past 25 years into looking at
the physical, chemical and biological processes that effect shipwreck sites (see Attachment 2 CV and
publications for applicant and principle investigators publications in Keith’s (2015) edited volume on site
formation processes, which the applicant and co-investigator have contributed to) would provide a unique
opportunity to further our understanding of the formation of the underwater archaeological record and
also apply these results to its management.
Effective start/end date01/10/201730/09/2019