What Is an Underwater Archaeologist?

K. Kinsella

An underwater archaeologist investigates historic sites, shipwrecks and the remains of biological substances that are located in bodies of water. Like land-based archaeologists, these individuals study these structures and materials to learn about past civilizations and extinct animals. Some archaeologists are employed by government agencies or educational establishments while others are employed by private firms.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Anyone wishing to become an underwater archaeologist must complete an undergraduate degree program in archaeology. Some universities also offer postgraduate degree courses in nautical archaeology that specifically prepare individuals for the challenge of collecting samples and gathering data while underwater. In some instances, people who have completed both undergraduate and master's degrees also go on to study for archaeology doctorates and people who complete these courses are often able to find employment as lecturers at major universities.

Shipwrecks may be the focus of an underwater archaeologist who is primarily concerned with human history. Such individuals dive down to ocean beds and try to locate the remnants of sunken vessels. In some bodies of water, such as the Black Sea, conditions are particularly favorable to preservation; archaeologists are often able to find ancient boats that are fully intact in locations such as this. During a dive, an archaeologist may gather jewelry, cutlery and other artifacts in a fishing net or specialized container and carry these items back to a boat before transporting the artifacts to a laboratory where an examination can be performed. Some archaeologists also gather human remains including skeletons and hair samples in order to learn more about the individuals who were being transported on these ill-fated vessels.

In some areas of the world, rising sea levels mean that structures that were built by ancient civilizations are now underwater. Archaeologists conduct surveys of these sites and use shovels and other tools to search for artifacts that may be hidden among the rubble. An underwater archaeologist may be equipped with an underwater camera in which case photographs of large structures can be taken and later used as study materials once the photographer has returned to dry land. Other archaeologists look for samples of ancient marine life that may take the form of bone fragments or fossils. As with human related artifacts, these exhibits are studied so that scientists can learn about the animals that once inhabited the Earth.

Archaeologists employed by universities and colleges often lead dives to sites that may be of interest to college students who are studying ancient cultures. Government employed archaeologists gather materials that are sometimes put on display in museums. Other people employed in this field conduct surveys on behalf of energy firms or engineering companies. These individuals are tasked with ensuring that underwater areas are devoid of historic structures that could prevent these firms from building on these sites.

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