Maritime archaeology is the scientific study of underwater cultural heritage and related land-based sites.
Underwater cultural heritage refers to all traces of human existence with cultural, historical or archaeological character that have been partially or totally submerged. Shipwrecks are the most commonly known type of underwater cultural heritage. Submerged aircraft, military defence systems, wharfs, jetties, port and fishing facilities and inundated human occupation sites are also included in this definition.
The museum runs a Maritime Archaeology Program that advises and actively helps Commonwealth, state agencies and overseas government authorities responsible for underwater cultural heritage.
The program provides advice and resources by:
- Sending trained staff to underwater cultural heritage sites to help survey, excavate, interpret and preserve them
- Advising on collection management, conservation and acquisition of underwater cultural heritage material
- Advising on international recommendations and policies including those of the International Congress of Maritime Museums (ICMM), the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.
- Advising on relevant legislation
Contact us for a copy of the policy.
The museum follows strict guidelines around displaying, lending and acquiring archaeological material.
* Archaeological material recovered from 4 pre-colonial Dutch shipwrecks off Western Australia's coast (displayed in Navigators) and materials recovered other underwater cultural heritage sites have undergone official approval. Under the 1972 Australian - Netherlands Committee on Old Dutch Shipwrecks (ANCODS), the museum is the commonwealth repository of selected material from the Dutch shipwrecks.
* The museum does not buy or accept archaeological material, except in special circumstances. When we are offered material, we investigate transferring it to the designated national or state authority, or relevant state museum or cultural institution.
* When the museum borrows archaeological material for display, the material must have been obtained in accordance with the 1990 ICMM recommendations. The material must not have been excavated for profit and it must have been legally obtained, excavated scientifically and ethically, and the archaeological collection preserved intact.
The museum receives many requests from Australia and overseas to acquire, borrow or lend archaeological material. Our Maritime Archaeology Program Policy includes guidelines about ethical practices and legislation, and aims to curb the destruction of underwater cultural heritage sites, and illegal or unethical trade in artefacts.
Contact us for a copy of the policy.
See Borrowing from the Collection
If you are interested in researching shipwrecks around Australia there are many online resources to help. The museum’s Library also has journal articles and conference papers by museum staff which are available online.
* Australian National Shipwreck Database
* Maritime Heritage Online New South Wales
* Historical Shipwrecks in Australia
* Shipwrecks Contacts for each State
* Shipwrecks Corrosion and Conservation
Shipwrecks are protected by commonwealth and state legislation.
* Historic Shipwrecks Act, 1976
* The Protection Of Movable Cultural Heritage Act, 1986
* New South Wales: Heritage Act (1977)
* Northern Territory: Heritage Conservation Act (1991)
* Queensland: Queensland Heritage Act (1992)
* South Australia: Heritage Places Act 1993
* South Australia: Historic Shipwrecks Act (1981)
* Tasmania: Historic Cultural Heritage Act (1995)
* Victoria: Heritage Act (1995)
* Victoria: Heritage (Underwater Cultural Heritage) Regulations 2017
* Western Australia: Maritime Archaeology Act 1973
The Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (AIMA) is the professional body for Australian maritime archaeologists.
The association produces a newsletter and a scholarly journal, the Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, and has a regular conference with papers from Australia and overseas. Publications produced by AIMA are available at the Vaughan Evans Library.
The AIMA Bulletin is the first publication point for maritime archaeological research in Australia. The AIMA website contains useful information, including contacts, an index to the Bulletin and past issues of the newsletter available online. The Bulletin is also indexed by the abstracting and indexing service APAIS which is available online at many libraries around Australia. In some larger libraries, such as university libraries and state libraries, this resource is available as a full text service.
The HistArch discussion list is useful for keeping up-to-date with Australian and international developments in maritime archaeology. This a moderated list.
If you have a question about the museum’s Maritime Archaeology Program or our collection please contact:
Kieran Hosty, Manager, Maritime Archaeology Program
Phone: +61 2 9298 3710
Featured image: Lee Graham conducts a 3D photogrammetric survey of one of ‘Morgan’s anchors’ at site KR11. Image: Renee Malliaros/Silentworld Foundation.
Imagine being the first people to find the remains of a troop ship that has been lost underwater for more than 180 years. Or helping excavate the wreck of a frigate that was sent to recapture HMAV Bounty and its mutinous crew and was itself lost on the Great Barrier Reef in 1791. The museum’s maritime archaeological team keeps busy surveying and documenting fascinating wrecks and artefacts.
Here are some of the exciting projects we’ve worked on.
07 Mar 2019
In December last year, maritime archaeologists and researchers from the museum and the Silentworld Foundation conducted a shipwreck survey of Boot Reef in the Coral Sea. While searching for the wreck of the Lancashire Lass, they also discovered something at the end of a large, long chain...Read more
05 Mar 2019
For over 60 years a Japanese midget submarine lay in the waters off Newport, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. In 2017 a high resolution 3D model of M24 was produced, providing an unprecedented level of detail of the wreck. We spoke to the team leader, maritime archaeologist Matt Carter, about this exciting project.Read more
23 May 2018
Once upon a time, the archaeologist’s toolkit was likely to consist of a shovel, trowel, bucket, brush, stakes and string. Today it includes a multitude of technological tools such as magnetometers, drones, ground-penetrating radar, 3D imaging and all sorts of acronyms including DGPS, LIDAR, ROVs, AUVs and many more.Read more
26 Feb 2018
Dutch explorers and traders in the 17th century knew to their cost the dangers of sailing near the Great South Land. A humble and tenacious sailor named Abraham Leeman experienced the worst that these treacherous coasts had to offer – not once but twice.Read more
24 Jan 2018
Across the 17,000 equatorial islands comprising the Republic of Indonesia, the ingenious arts of timber boat building have been a crucial enabler of human ventures from prehistoric times until today.Read more
Murky water, major storms and maritime archaeology: Adventures with the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (2017 Field Season)
18 Jan 2018
This past September, Kieran Hosty and I travelled to Newport, Rhode Island to assist an ongoing effort to archaeologically document eighteenth-century shipwreck sites in the city’s harbour associated with the American War of Independence (1775-1783).Read more