Maritime archaeology is the scientific study of artefact assemblages, sites and structures, which are associated with past human activity and now lie underwater, either beneath the sea or in inland waters. The field has grown considerably in Australia since 1970 and maritime archaeologists are now employed by museums and government agencies in every state and territory.
The majority of underwater archaeological sites in Australia are shipwrecks, but prehistoric settlements, sunken land sites, or remains associated with other human activities such as crashed aircraft, are also studied. Maritime archaeologists are trained in the broader discipline of archaeology but usually have special expertise in ships, shipbuilding and maritime history.
Most maritime archaeologists working for museums are involved in research, excavation and display, while those employed by government agencies undertake surveys, assessments of the significance of archaeological sites or artefacts, and management of cultural resources. There are also some opportunities in associated areas such as conservation of materials, technical support, photography and in the protection of declared historic shipwrecks.
A National Shipwrecks Program is co-ordinated through the federal Department of the Environment and Heritage. The program aims to increase knowledge, use, appreciation and enjoyment of Australia's historic shipwreck heritage, while also ensuring the continued conservation, protection and preservation of these wrecks and relics.
A career in maritime archaeology normally requires a university degree, preferably in archaeology, history or a related discipline. Many universities offer these curricula. There are a growing number of postgraduate courses in maritime archaeology offered in Australia (particularly Flinders University in Adelaide), including graduate certificate, diploma and Masters programs in addition to affiliated museums. However, postgraduate studies in maritime archaeology towards higher degrees (masters and doctorate awards) can potentially be undertaken in any university that has a Department of Archaeology.
Photo: Archaeologists using a grid-square system at a depth of 33 metres to excavate the wreck of the Pandora.