Writing as a recreational diver with no real commercial diving background, being a part of an archaeological team that are working on a wreck just off Dolphin Beach, near Cape Town in South Africa was quite an experience. Coming from a strictly land based archaeological background, this was an opportunity which I could not ignore.
Maritime archaeology is something which appeals to the inner Indiana Jones in all of us: Wrecks, pirate treasure and the very nature of underwater exploration. These all make for a pretty picture, but in reality strict procedures have to be followed during a wreck excavation, or interpretation. To start with, our team (one of two teams based at Robben Island namely the land team and the dive team) went out to begin setting up base lines for our control network at a wreck we named ‘The Barrel Wreck’ due to the many barrels of various sizes found on and inside it. Due to rough sea conditions we abandoned this plan for the moment, and went to our secondary site, ‘The Cannon Wreck’, where we began the same process.
Measurements were taken, sketches were made and site assessment took place. We continued this for a few days due to the very low visibility of about 1-2m found at ‘The Barrel Wreck’. Eventually conditions improved and we could finally dive on the main site. Once the base lines were put it, dive plans were made, tasks assigned and the work began in earnest. Many a dive was spent taking measurements between control points so as to get an accurate picture of the site after we upload the data acquired into a program called Site Recorder. Control points had to be placed all over and around the wreck. Detail sketches of key features on the wreck also had to be made, and in strong surge these proved to be quite a challenge.
Sticking to the strict procedures of archaeological practice, under the guidance of two expert conservators, the dive team learnt how to do PH testing of concreted cannons found at the wreck. This was done using a compressed air powered drill and many fancy pieces of equipment. Using power tools underwater was quite an eye opening experience to the group. Core samples were also taken under the watchful eyes of the conservators and the resident crayfish.
Coming back off our long days on the boat and in the water, we returned to Robben Island, where we would receive lectures on Maritime Archaeology, Conservation, Heritage Management and many other interesting fields relating to the maritime landscape.
Working in the maritime environment and doing active archaeology underwater is something which not many people can say they have done, but is something which I hope many more people will be exposed to in the future, not only because of the job satisfaction, but also because of the importance of conserving and managing our maritime heritage all over the world.