Maritime (or marine) archaeology is a particular discipline within archaeology that specifically studies human interaction with the sea, lakes, and rivers through the analysis and detailed study of their physical remains. Such remains can be of many kinds: ships, port structures, cargo, human remains, and submerged landscapes. Maritime archaeological sites are often the result of a sinking or seismic activity, thus representing a particular moment in time and not a slow deposition of material accumulated over time.

 An overview of Maritime archaeology - Sheet1
Overall view of the shipwreck and the excavation site_[Photograph]_ ©Issaris, Y. (2019)
The role of maritime archaeologists

Professional maritime archaeologists have used archaeological excavation to study and analyse marine sites in detail. Despite this, it should be kept in mind how through the displacement of artefacts, excavation permanently alters an area with its aesthetic, historical, and social values. For these reasons, excavation is often limited to only those sites that have the potential to answer important questions or those that would be at risk of destruction in any case. However, much of the work of maritime archaeologists involves surveying maritime sites and assessing their potential. The study of marine archaeological sites is fundamental for getting a well-defined idea of the maritime past. We study real objects, places, and stories of people in their daily lives.

 An overview of Maritime archaeology - Sheet2
View of Trench 1/2019 from the west_[Photograph]_©Tourtas, A. (2019)

An integrated approach | Maritime archaeology

However, just as with terrestrial archaeology, what manages to survive and thus be investigated by archaeologists is often a tiny fraction of the material originally deposited. Despite all the material lost, there are also rare examples of survival, which provide the material needed to learn something. Maritime archaeology is valued for its multifaceted and integrated approach, emphasising the links of nautical activity with the historical and social context of the community in which they are embedded. Before the beginning of the industrial era, travel by water was more accessible and more common than travel by land. As a result, navigable rivers and seas constituted the trade routes most travelled by historical and ancient civilisations. The many historical records that have been layered over time, the remains of ports and ships testify to how numerous trade was conducted across sea surfaces. Wars were also fought at sea for control of important resources. The Father of modern underwater archaeology in Italy is Nino Lamboglia, who is mainly credited with intervening to recover the wreck of an ancient Roman ship that sank in the waters of Albenga.

 An overview of Maritime archaeology - Sheet3
Wrecks stand to see a number of threats in a changing ocean_[Photograph]_©Schwemmer, R. (2018)

The Mediterranean Area 

In the Mediterranean area, maritime archaeologists have found relics of fundamental historical value that have made them easier to study various ancient cultures in greater depth. Maritime archaeological studies in Italy have revealed important relics of naval and maritime activities of the Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans. Although, at that time, sailing was an extremely safe and efficient method of transportation, a percentage of voyages ended disastrously in sinking. The significant increase in maritime traffic caused a corresponding increase in sinkings.  Particularly useful for archaeologists have been the studies they have been able to carry out on amphorae, transport containers used extensively in the Mediterranean region from the 15th century B.C. to the medieval period. In addition to the numerous finds in the sea, some of them, though in smaller numbers, also occur in lakes.

 An overview of Maritime archaeology - Sheet4
A Roman Plate wreck_[Photograph]_(Antalya: Turkey)_©Oniz, H. (2019)

The Work of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology

Outstanding in the field of marine archaeology is the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), which represents the oldest organisation in the world dedicated to this particular archaeological study. INA members apply the highest scientific tools and standards to locate, record, and preserve shipwrecks worldwide. Since about three-quarters of the earth is covered with water, the fundamental thread in human history is our association with the planet’s oceans, rivers, and lakes. The Institute of Nautical Archaeology works to share the work of nautical archaeologists. It is, moreover, charged with preserving shipwrecks and archaeological sites, finding new sites and unlocking their secrets.

Throughout history, seismic events have often caused the submergence of human settlements. The remnants of such natural disasters can be found almost all over the world, and sites such as Alexandria, Port Royal, and Mary Rose now constitute essential archaeological sites that are protected, managed, and preserved. 

Particolare del Ninfeo di Punta Epitaffio_[Photograph]_©Ruspantini, E. (2021)

The Main Methods and Tools | Maritime archaeology

Once the area is identified, archaeologists immediately proceed to install three construction sites, one submerged, one floating, and one on land. One of the first operations carried out is the construction of an onshore squaring rig made of rigid metal pipes or ropes. It forms the indispensable basis for all excavation operations. One of the most widely used tools in underwater work is the sorbona, thanks to which it is possible to aspirate sediments, thus detecting the layers that have overlapped over time and the archaeological materials. Among the many artefacts of considerable importance in the waters of the sea are the King’s sarcophagi, still located in the waters of San Pietro in Bevagna. The latest archaeological discovery is particularly fascinating, near the “Isola delle Femmine” in Sicily, 92 meters deep. Numerous amphorae from the Roman era, intended for transporting wine en route on a 2nd B.C. shipwreck to Rome, were found here. 

In conclusion, this particular branch of research shows how man has made numerous discoveries that have forever changed the perception and knowledge of life on earth, the way of life, and the events of the earliest times in human history.


Encyclopedia of Archaeology (2013) Maritime Archaeology [Online] Available at: [Accessed date: 2023/02/10]

Delgado, J. P. (1997) British Museum Encyclopaedia of Underwater and Maritime Archaeology, British Museum Press, London.

Institute of Nautical Archaeology (2023) The Institute of Nautical Archaeology Excavates Shipwrecks [Online] Available at:  [Accessed date: 2023/02/10]

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (2017) Maritime Archaeology [Online] Available at: [Accessed date: 2023/02/10]


Laura Salurso is an architecture and design graduate with a strong passion for traveling, writing and photography. She has always looked at things around her from an architectural point of view, observing and studying the strong and archetypical connection between architecture and people.