Diving into Archaeology

You’ve watched Time Team, Wreck Detectives or Drain the Oceans and you fancy giving maritime archaeology a go.

You think to yourself… how hard can it be?!

You are clever, practical, have a sense of adventure, and dare I say, a bit of time on your hands. You even have the money to pay for it.

So, how do you get your foot in the door?

Well, like many people who have reached out to me over the years, your next step might be to stalk everyone on the internet who has absolutely anything to do with maritime archaeology.  It’s a plan, but not one I would recommend!

My advice is this:  before approaching anyone,  think about the kind of things you are interested in (site types or time periods, for example), what it is to you would like to do (dig, dive, conserve or discover via desk-based research), and where you would like to do it (remembering that the ‘where’ has a cost implication), before making contact.

Trust me.

I have been on the receiving end of thousands of phone calls, emails and LinkedIn messages from people who want in, but don’t know where ‘in’ is. They aren’t clear on what they want to do, why they want do do it, and most of all, what they have to offer. Getting these three things clear in your mind before you approach anyone, will very definitely set you apart from the pack. At this stage, the relationship is the task, and social capital is critical… so do your homework!

Homework done, then what?


1.   Explore


Find out what opportunities exist near you. There are walks, talks, and other events on nearly every week in every corner of the world. There are also hundreds of opportunities each year in which to undertake archaeological education or become a fieldwork volunteer.

At this stage, I would suggest you join a local or national maritime archaeological organisation, such as the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS), Institute for Nautical Archaeology (INA), Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (AIMA), or Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA). Membership not only brings you into contact with professional maritime archaeologists and like-minded avocationals,  it provides access to information and resources unavailable elsewhere. The newsletters, blogs, magazines, events, and library facilities available to members, will help you to meet people, get connected and learn things!

And remember, you will always get out of a membership what you put in.  So get amongst it. Where they exist, use society discussion lists (like Sub-Arch) to full advantage. They will help you on your learning journey, and you just never know who you might meet.


2.   Educate


Whether you are a diver looking to get into maritime archaeology, an professional archaeologist looking to work underwater, or someone who is simply interested in learning more about our maritime past… skill up! You may have tremendous transferrable skills which can be applied to maritime archaeology, but if you don’t know the basics, you won’t get a look in.

If you are in the UK, I think the NAS Training Program is the best place to start. It was originally developed to train divers volunteering on the Mary Rose project and almost 40 years later it is still the go-to for practical foreshore and underwater archaeology skills.

If based outside of the UK, NAS can advise you on where courses are being held in your local area. At last count NAS had partner organisations in over 20 countries on every continent. I started my maritime archaeology career with the NAS and chances are, you can too!

Of course, if you want a career in archaeology, you will likely have to head back to University. I did my MA at the University of Southampton and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Texas A&M University (TAMU) also offers an excellent Nautical Archaeology Program in conjunction with the INA, as does the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Ulster, Flinders University and L-Università ta’ Malta.

If you are looking for a program closer to home, check out UNESCO’s list of underwater archaeology programs. Its lists almost every program globally, so you will be sure to find something that works for you.



3.   Confer


In order to building a broad knowledge base, conference attendance is critical. Conferences are a great way to network, learn and get exposed to the latest thinking.

In USA, UK, and Australia, maritime archaeology conferences are held on an annual basis. Contact SHA, NAS,  and/or AIMA for details.

Later this year, the 3rd SEAMEO SPAFA International Conference on Southeast Asian Archaeology (SPAFACON2019) will take place in Bangkok. Although not specifically a maritime conference, Southeast Asia is archipelagic and therefore there are several maritime sessions.

The Asia-Pacific Regional Congress on Underwater Cultural Heritage (APCON), 9th World Archaeology Congress (WAC9) and 7th International Congress on Underwater Archaeology (IKUWA7) are all scheduled for 2020, whilst the 16th edition of ISBSA, the International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology – a heavy hitting and technical maritime archaeology conference – that I was honoured to speak at last year,  is planned for Zadar in 2021.

I’ll be at SPAFACON, APCON, WAC and IKUWA and ISBSA, so if you decided to attend, be sure to come say hello.

If these don’t appeal to you, the Council for British Archaeology and the Nautical Archaeology Society both maintain an online list of upcoming conferences, so be sure to check them out.



4.   Participate


Volunteering is the by far the best way to get your foot in the door. It helps you to develop new skills, enhance career prospects, build new relationships, enjoy a sense of achievement and connect with community, past and present.

If you interested in voluntary field experience, Past Horizons, Projects Abroad, Current Archaeology and Earth Watch all have a searchable database of research projects looking for volunteers. You may also find volunteer opportunities on the Underwater Archaeology Jobs website.

If you are in Australia, interested in maritime archaeology, and are still at school, never fear.  The Australian National Maritime Museum, or Sea Museum as it is now called, runs a number of Australian national curriculum based educational workshops (from Kindergarten to Year 12) in the areas of maritime archaeology and material science. These programs can be conducted in-house (excursion), at the school (incursion) or over the web (virtual excursion), and include Maritime Archaeology, Senior Maritime Archaeology, Shipwreck Sleuths, Shipwreck Corrorion and Conservation, and Shipwreck Stories. For more information, or to book your place, please contact the museum via email: bookings@seamuseum.gov.au.

If you are a diver, Southern Ocean Exploration (SOE) offers volunteer opportunities to anyone interested in shipwrecks and maritime archaeology. SOE is a not-for-profit organisation that has been operating since 2003.  Comprised of technical divers, maritime archaeologists, and shipwreck researchers, SOE works closely both Heritage Victoria and the Maritime Archaeology Association of Victoria. SOE has located over 12 sites in south/eastern Australian and is currently working on projects in Port Phillip Bay, Bass Straight, King Island and Tasmania.  For more information, or to find out how you may get involved, contact Mark Ryan at SOE via email mark@southernoceanexploration.com.

Last, but certainly not least, if you are in the UK,  the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST) is calling for volunteers to help with the HMS Invincible 1744 project. Thirty-four people are needed across a range of disciplines, to be based around Portsmouth and Poole starting in April 2019. Tasks will include:

  • finds recording;
  • artefact conservation;
  • artefact research;
  • assisting with the curation of major exhibitions at Chatham Historic Dockyard and The National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard; and
  • helping at events to inspire people through storytelling.

If this is of interest, you can find out more at www.nmrn.org.uk, or to register interest, email volunteering@nmrn.org.uk. You just never know where it might lead you…



5.   Persist


Most of all be persistent. When I was knee-deep in my dissertation, a mentor of mine told me that the most difficult things are only ones worth doing. Although I didn’t believe him at the time, you know what? He was right! So stick with it! It took me three months to get accepted onto my first volunteer dig and it changed my life. The people I met in that soggy field in Scotland are still some of the best friends and mentors this girl could ever have.

If you want to give maritime archaeology a go, remember that opportunities are there for the taking, it is just up to you to  take them. So, put your thinking caps on, along with your dry suit, and dive in!

If you have a top tip for getting in involved in maritime archaeology, tell me about it! I would love to know.

Start a conversation in the comments section below and if comments aren’t your thing, you can find me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Images courtesy Damian Sivero, Iain Grant of the Hazardous Project (which I volunteered at for 5 years), and yours truly!

About Sarah Ward

I’m Sarah Ward, a maritime archaeologist, commercial diver and factual presenter with 16 years experience, both in and out of the water. I’ve investigated sites ranging from the Bronze Age to the modern, across more than 20 countries. A Visiting Professor at Dalian Maritime University and MIT Ocean Discovery Fellow, I am on a mission to bring archaeology to a broader audience, helping people to connect with the past in a meaningful way.

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(c) Indiana Sarah 2019