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Archaeology Under Water

Underwater Archaeology - a cultural commitment


Underwater archaeology as field of research has been subject to considerable uplift in the last three to four decades outside of Germany. On the one hand this is due to the great scientific expressiveness of closed find complexes - e.g. ships and their cargoes, ancient harbours, which render insights into the history of economics, traffic and technique as well as sunken settlement sites, which enhance our understanding of settlement patterns and the way of life of prehistoric and successive cultures.
On the other hand these sites are increasingly threatened by development projects like harbour and waterway improvements, draining, intensification of fishery techniques and not at least through growing tourism and water-sport facilities. Impacts like the destruction of reed lead to riverbank erosions, which also result in the uncovering and loss of important sites. 

Also many a sport-diver, being unaware of the legal regulations and fascinated by ancient things, recovers artefacts from the seabed and supposedly safes them, whilst in fact they are torn out of their archaeological context. It does not need to be emphasized that the greatest damage to the underwater cultural heritage occurs through systematic pillaging, which is solely motivated by greed for profit.

The protection and scientific evaluation of the underwater cultural heritage is a matter of course for all cultural nations. In most European countries and the USA considerable efforts have been carried out and institutions were established, which pursue underwater archaeological issues.



The situation of underwater archaeology in Germany

Also in Germany underwater archaeology is not a completely unknown subject. The salvage of the Hanseatic Bremen cog or of the Roman vessels in Mainz have caused a great stir (although the vessels of Mainz were excavated in a drained area). Also other projects are undertaken, which are less prominent though not less successful, i.e. investigations of prehistoric settlement sites at the banks of Lake Constance and other Alpine lakes by the underwater archaeological unit of the Society for Prehistory in Württemberg-Hohenzollern to name just one example.

Admittedly most actions are more or less restricted and not seldom subject to dissolution, yet they are always supported by a small number of people with modest financial means. In particular we lack institutions, which by now exist in most European countries, i.e. centres in which continuous work could be carried out, which serve as planning and coordination authorities, which could initiate pilot projects and which can support research on a long-term basis. Moreover neither German universities nor other public educational establishments offer opportunities to study the far-reaching facets of underwater archaeology, which encompass theoretical and practical subjects ranging from aspects of limniology and sedimentology, GIS, prehistory, cultural history, art history, naval architecture and excavation methodologies.

Especially in Germany the situation is precarious. Not only the progressive loss of our cultural heritage in lakes, rivers and wet areas needs to be halted more vigorously and persistently, i.e. by more financial support, but in addition we need to oppose a development, which scale cannot even be estimated at the moment: Due to the low salinity of the Baltic Sea historically significant shipwrecks have preserved much better and in a much greater number than in the North Sea or other waters. Until 1989 they were protected against detrimental influences, partly by extensive restricted areas, partly because diving at the coastal area was only open to few selected people anyway. Since then wreck sites have become increasingly accessible, the situation has changed dramatically, as it had quickly got around amongst sport-divers that much could be recovered from the Baltic Sea. What is more the degree of salinity increases gradually in the western part of the Baltic and thereby makes it habitable for the Teredo Navalis, which accelerates the decay of wooden structures - like shipwrecks - decisively.

Goals and previous activities of the German Society for the Promotion of Underwater Archaeology (DEGUWA)

The situation as described above and the growing threat of the underwater cultural heritage has induced several responsible and historically interested sport-divers to find a remedy. In conjunction with scholars and scientists of various disciplines and friends of the Antiquity they founded the DEGUWA on the 11th January 1991, which was acknowledged as charitable organisation. Its scholarly underwater archaeological work and experiences in northern, eastern and Mediterranean waters as well as in inland waters have encountered already national and international recognition.

The goals and principles of the DEGUWA are of pure scholarly nature. The leading thought of a substantial part of its previous work is to unite archaeology and diving, i.e. heritage agencies and diving associations for a shared aim. In order to achieve this goal students of prehistory, classical archaeology and similar subjects as well as historically interested laymen are offered an inexpensive dive-training, training opportunities and the required equipment can be partly provided.

Moreover this society seeks to make the purpose of archaeological research accessible to sport-divers by introducing them to basic technical terms and techniques of underwater archaeology in order to evoke interest and the willingness to cooperate.

The connection of archaeology and diving is promoted by the organisation of theoretical and practical weekend seminars according to the training scheme standards of the British "Nautical Archaeology Society" (NAS). Through these seminars we attain not only a growing potential of diving archaeologists but also of diving assistants of the most varied professions, which are also needed in underwater archaeological fieldwork (e.g. technique, computer science, photography etc.). This facilitates us to put together teams for projects of the DEGUWA, but also in support of heritage agencies and similar institutions.
The training programme is rounded off by practical exercise in wreck-prospection (e.g. in the summer of 1992 off Hiddensee) and by mediating the participation in underwater excavations and fieldschools abroad, as long as they are not offered at home. More information to forthcoming NAS-seminars could be found in the category Training.

The cooperation with German institutions for the preservation of historic monuments is not less important, for which the DEGUWA has established a representative's post, as well as with international organisations. For the exchange of knowledge and experience representatives have been send to conferences, on which many useful contacts were established. The first own conference of the DEGUWA took place on the 19th/20th June 1993 in conjunction with the Department of Archaeology of the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg.

The DEGUWA attaches great value to the difficult task to enlighten the sport-diving community about the underwater cultural heritage, to campaign for its protection and preservation and to rise the awareness of the legal situation.

Besides training and informing research shall not be neglected. Ultimately only research provides the genuine motivation to learn and it provides the opportunity to employ the knowledge in practical application. Hence the DEGUWA initiates surveys, excavations etc. from time to time. In the category Projects are several short reports on past projects.

The condition along the German Baltic Sea coast and inland waters require a special methodology of prospection and excavation, to which success the application of modern technology can make a promising contribution. The underwater archaeological and preservational responsibilities along the German Baltic Sea coast - as they came into being after the German reunification - must be tackled in scholarly, co-operative and selfless expediency in order to protect and study the cultural heritage. Although there are many sonar and camera appliances for underwater deployment, survey and measuring methods require a new technique. Archaeological prospections should be therefore carried out of the visible features that protrude from under the sediments without disturbance of the find complex. Important structures in the depth must be therefore recorded by non-intrusive methods, as an excavation would often destroy all important information in the sediments. Particularly the demand on scholarly archaeological work cannot be fulfilled by mere measurings of the seabed. Therefore the DEGUWA is also dedicated to the solution of technical problems. So, for instance, the development of a new sub-bottom profiler (to localise objects under the sediments) is supported.

The deployment of such and similar devices for underwater archaeological purposes can be tested on an underwater scaffold, which was constructed and installed by the DEGUWA in one of the new central Franconian reservoirs.

Last but not least it should be mentioned that the DEGUWA organises annual 'In Poseidons Reich' conferences and publishes the proceedings and other articles in the SKYLLIS journal since 1998. 


What needs to be done?

The DEGUWA aims to continue and to intensify its activities and goals - as outlined above - with concerted efforts. An increase of members and therewith the growing potential of factually involved individuals is highly desirable. At the moment an enormous workload is shouldered by only a few.

The main focus of our work will continue to be identifiable with the promotion of awareness, training, research, cooperation and exchange as well as technological developments. In the long-term, however, a private society cannot cope alone with all required tasks of underwater archaeology. A technically complex excavation project of many years is not reliably supportable by exclusive unpaid volunteers, who mostly have to bear their own expenses. It rather requires permanent staff. Therefore it should be considered to establish a research institute at national level, which could be either totally independent or part of an existing establishment, like the German Archaeological Institute or the Max-Planck-Society. It would mainly be dedicated to basic research and the work in waters outside of Germany. Moreover the federal states should establish units for underwater archaeology within the Departments for the Preservation of Historic Monuments. In terms of education it would be recommendable to follow the Swedish model of an integrated curriculum to be established in a northern and a southern German university respectively. The DEGUWA would become by no means superfluous once such institutions are established, but it could even focus and concert its activities and support.

Yet in consideration of the current financial situation one cannot expect an implementation of the proposed actions in the near future. As time is pressing and as it needs to be acted in great expediency if the eternal loss of priceless archaeological sites - particularly along the Baltic Sea coast - should be halted, it would be desirable if the work of the DEGUWA could get the greatest possible support from public and private parties.
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