by Hunter Brendel, Master of Maritime Archaeology student
As I sit on the edge of a 1×1 square meter unit, all I can hear is the methodical sound of my own breathing through my regulator. The water dredge is operating in full force with my student dive buddy wrestling the dredge (I’ve dubbed it ‘the hydra’ as a term of endearment) and digging down into the darkness of history. Looking to the right, I spot a school of Atlantic spadefish within reach, curiously hovering over a neighboring unit to the west. They scatter when a fellow supervisor emerges from the unit, giving me the “okay” dive signal as he descends back into the darkness. Following a travel line, I swim around the unit into another one a couple of meters south of my position to scope out an artefact that is already plotted on the site plan I have engraved into my memory. I gingerly reach down into the unit with my right hand, feeling the artefact a meter down through the pitch blackness. It is then I realize I am touching history, an eighteenth-century cannon lost to the bottom of the ocean long ago. This scenario gives me flashbacks to a terrestrial field school I participated in a couple of years ago—only the dredge is our trowel and hand signals are our primary means of communication. This is all done with less than a meter of visibility.
It’s difficult to describe the surreal experience of excavating underwater in low visibility, but archaeology by braille is a task that requires all five senses to be fully functional. The site I am fortunate enough to be working on is known as the Storm Wreck, a British loyalist revolutionary shipwreck discovered off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida in 2009 by an American non-profit underwater archaeology organization, the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP). Since then, LAMP has dedicated a field school each summer to excavating the Storm Wreck by bringing in students and volunteers from around the world to work on the project.
Currently, we are in the throes of the 2014 field school, and I couldn’t be more excited about the work we have done and what we have yet to accomplish. The field school extends the full month of June, so I am blogging my experiences on certain aspects of the project as a directed study and to inform the public on how Flinders Maritime Archaeology students conduct archaeology outside of the crystal clear waters of South Australia.
This blog post focuses on what I consider to be the primary environmental difference between my previous experiences on maritime archaeology sites in South Australia to that of Florida’s northeastern Atlantic coast. The Flinders 2013 field school that I participated in near Port MacDonnell was focused on two sites that had diving conditions of relatively clear visibility. We students were able to document the sites by taking photos with cameras in underwater housings and sketching archaeological features on Mylar. On the Storm Wreck, however, site documentation by photography is nearly impossible unless the visibility is unusually good. In order to work on the site, I’ve had to memorize the site plan, trust my instincts, and follow travel lines to get where I want to be.
Figure 1. Students during the 2013 Flinders University Archaeology Field School near Port MacDonnell, South Australia.
Figure 2. A diver during the Storm Wreck 2009 field season installs a screw anchor to mark an anomaly. This photo was taken on what is considered to be a good visibility day. Photo courtesy of LAMP.
Even if visibility is excellent on the Storm Wreck site, by the end of the day it is nonexistent because of water dredges silting the site. To train students and supervisors to be ready for site conditions, LAMP staff devised an obstacle course in a freshwater dive shop pool that was riddled with obstacles such as barrels, wheelbarrows, and tangled line. The goal of finishing the course was to descend a down line, retrieve a flashlight, follow a travel line through the assortment of obstacles, clip the flashlight on the end down line, and ascend to the surface. Furthermore, the diver was further challenged by LAMP staff and supervisors by blacking out his or her dive mask with electrical tape. The course was to be completed without vision and taught the diver to trust his or her instincts and the travel line. Divers were also clipped to the bottom of the pool by bungee cords at certain points of the course to teach them how to comfortably unsnag themselves. At one point in the course, divers were to take off their BC (buoyancy compensator) and put it back on.
Since I was new to the project, I went through the course myself and nothing could have prepared me better, other than actually being on site, to navigate the Storm Wreck. I had a blast doing the course, as did all of the other divers, and I hope to see similar training on low visibility maritime archaeology projects in the future. Now to get back in the field!