Last Thursday I spent an evening at the bottom of a swimming pool with some buddies, a clipboard and some measuring tape. Nope, it was not yet another diving qualification. It was a practical session for an NAS nautical archaeology training course.
What is the NAS?
The Nautical Archaeology Society is a UK-based NGO which aims to promote interest in underwater cultural heritage in Britain, but also worldwide in partnership with other organisations and groups. Amongst its various activities, it offers a formal training programme for non-specialist members of the public (not necessarily divers). The programme is divided into several parts and completing all of it gives you a full diploma in nautical archaeology. With a buddy, I signed up to do the Introduction and Part I of this programme over the course of two weekends at Hong Kong Maritime Museum. It was taught by professional maritime archaeologist and NAS Senior Tutor Dr Bill Jeffery who, along with a group of local enthusiasts, founded the Hong Kong Underwater Heritage Group a few years ago.
The Introduction and Part I of the programme consisted of both theory and practical learning. The first theory session was a very interesting introduction to the field, defining what nautical archaeology is, and talking about types of sites (not just shipwrecks!), types of projects that can be undertaken, and ethical and legal issues surrounding underwater heritage. The next day-long session went into more detail about surveying techniques and technologies. Then, Paul Harrison, the HKMM’s conservator, talked about the particular challenges of looking after artifacts from underwater sites. One very interesting point I took away is that historical objects often survive far better underwater than on land-based sites as shown in this chart taken from the course handout:
With so much of the ocean yet to be explored, and with huge advances in surveying technologies in recent years, it seems to me after just this short introduction that the scope and potential for maritime archaeology is enormous.
But we weren’t sitting in a classroom the whole time. A big part of the sessions was learning how to carry out simple, low-tech 2-D and 3-D underwater surveys. We first practiced on land, simulating a survey site by using objects like lampposts and trees in the public area outside the museum as artifacts, and working as a group to take measurements. When Bill helped us input our measurements into some specialist software, some of our results were inaccurate. It made us realise that taking precise measurements is not as easy as it seems — and this was all done on land where we could talk to each other!
Repeating all of these survey techniques underwater in a pool practical session was even more tricky. We learned that it is essential to have a good team briefing session, fix everyone’s roles beforehand and be very clear on the order of proceeding, down to the smallest details, because communication underwater is far more restricted. And all this was still in an ideal, swimming-pool environment. In the sea, with reduced vis, silt, obstructions, swells and other considerations, the challenge will be greater still! Let’s pretend this plastic box is a treasure chest!
So what’s next?
The next stage of the training is Part II, which consists of a small group project and report about an archaeological site, and also broadening one’s knowledge of the field by attending a certain number of hours of lectures or events related to underwater archaeology. I hope to get started on this in the near future and learn more about this fascinating subject.
For more information about the activities of the HK underwater heritage group, check out their Facebook group.
If you enjoyed this post, please do follow this site by ‘liking’ its facebook page to receive future updates, or subscribe by email (scroll down, bottom right). Thank you!