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Conference on deep-sea archaeology held at MIT

MIT just set a world precedent by hosting the first-ever conference on archaeology in the deep sea, a relatively new scientific field that aims to locate and document shipwrecks and other human-made objects that lie at the bottom of the deep ocean.

Professor David Mindell of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society organized the conference, "Technology and Archaeology in the Deep Sea: Toward a New Synthesis," which was co-sponsored by MIT and the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, CT, a research organization founded by Dr. Robert Ballard, the oceanographer credited with finding the Titanic.

About 60 professionals from six countries plus more than 20 students and reporters assembled in Bartos Theater from January 29-31 to talk about this new field. President Charles M. Vest welcomed the group to MIT and wished them well as they charted new waters in their "nascent specialty."

"I've been waiting 15 years for this conference," said Robert Grenier, head of underwater archaeology for Parks Canada, in an informal address from the conference floor.

"We brought together for the first time archaeologists, engineers and oceanographers to discuss fundamental problems of doing archaeology in the deep ocean," said Professor Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Assistant Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing. "Nobody's ever done that before. We laid the foundation for the future.

"Simply put, we founded a new subfield of archaeology and got a lot of people very excited about working in the deep ocean," said Professor Mindell, who is an historian of science as well as an engineer. He worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on the design of Jason, the world's most sophisticated remotely-operated vehicle (ROV). His roles in the discovery of eight ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea in 1997 and of the USS Yorktown in 1998 are discussed in MIT Tech Talk on September 10, 1997 and June 10, 1998 respectively.

Archaeology in the deep sea was made possible only in the last few decades by the development of vehicles capable of scanning the bottom of the ocean with great precision at depths of up to 6,000 meters.

This new ability to find shipwrecks, thoroughly document their position and recover artifacts from them at depths well below the reach of scuba divers or sunlight suddenly places "90 percent of the oceans and adjacent seas" within reach of archaeologists, said Dr. Ballard, who found the sunken Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean offshore from Halifax, Canada.

For some time, underwater or shallow-water archaeology has been conducted by scuba divers working at depths of up to 100 meters. Deep-sea archaeology begins where scuba divers leave off. It is an expensive and highly technical form of archaeology requiring the expertise of oceanographers and deep-submergence vehicle engineers. Teams generally take naval ships out to an ocean site for about 30 days at a time. From there, the ROV is submerged and set to work surveying the ocean floor, sending data back to ship's control room.

The new field will allow archaeologists to piece together the trade routes of the ancient world, and perhaps help geologists to understand how the Earth's bodies of water have shifted throughout mankind's history. There is even the potential for the recovery of the remains of communities from beneath bodies of water that flooded human settlements before written history.

In the first session of the conference, Dr. Ballard gave a brief history of deep-submergence technology and encouraged archaeologists to become active in mobilizing research monies for deep-sea archaeological projects.

He credited improvements in deep-submergence vehicles in the 1970s -- they were first created by the military in the 1950s -- as well asthe development of plate tectonic theory for creating an environment that made the new discipline possible.

"Scientists from different disciplines suddenly needed their deep-submergence colleagues," he said, and the "deep-submergence community finally gained sanction from the NSF," which now has a committee specifically to review and recommend funding for deep-submergence projects. When archaeologists begin sitting on that panel, Dr. Ballard said, deep-sea archaeology projects will begin to get funded.

One of the most fundamental issues of the conference was to determine how archaeolgists can work with ocean engineers to develop the technology necessary for archaeology in the deep sea. Other sessions dealt with the methodology and results of marine archaeology to date, ocean science, ethical issues, cultural resource management and legal frameworks of the new field.

There is considerable debate over whether shipwrecks should be simply documented and sampled, or pulled apart and brought up piecemeal. Once artifacts are recovered, there are often arguments about ownership. For instance, who would own artifacts taken from a500 BC Roman ship found in the middle of the Mediterranean on an expedition led by an American oceanographer and a Turkish archaeologist using a US naval ship? The law of the sea does not extend to the deep ocean and so there are no legal frameworks for determining ownership. Also, would it be possible or ethical to prevent scavengers from coming in after the scientific team and recovering artifacts for private sale?

Most of these questions remained unanswered at the end of the conference, but the field and its key players had begun to coalesce so progress could continue. In that regard, the conference was a profound success. "A startling number of people told me it was the best, most interesting conference they ever attended," said Professor Mindell, who will offer a graduate seminar on the same topic next fall, another first for MIT.

"I'll be most pleased if 15 years from now, when someone makes a great find in deep water, they recall they first got the idea for the project, or first met their collaborator, or first decided to go to graduate school at that first conference at MIT in 1999," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 10, 1999.

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