Understanding Underwater Archaeology

Florida has 12,133 total square miles of water which represents 18.5% of the total 65,758 square miles the state has to offer. Similar to the rest of the state, Manatee County is no exception to coastlines and inland waterways. With water surrounding Florida on three sides, take a moment to stop and reflect what is hiding below the surface.


Fish and other species that live in the oceans and rivers are important to the surrounding ecosystems, but what about manmade objects?


Shipwrecks line the coast of Florida. In Manatee County there are two sites dedicated as Underwater Archaeological Preserves by the state of Florida. The Regina, according to Florida’s Museums in the Sea, “sank in 1940 and today rests partially buried off Bradenton Beach in shallow water.” The barge was 247 feet in length and made from steel. The other site is the USS Narcissus. This steam tug sank twice, once in 1864 and for the final time in 1866 at the end of the Civil War. The Regina and the USS Narcissus are just a sampling of underwater archaeology throughout the state.


What is underwater archaeology in regards to shipwrecks? And why are shipwrecks important? Shipwrecks allow us to view the past in a different perspective, and provide a broader understanding of historical events. Depending on temperature and salinity levels, underwater sites often preserve many organic materials better than those found on land. Through this, shipwrecks have the potential to reveal new information about historical weather patterns, currents, and trade routes adding a new dimension to our current historical knowledge.


Underwater archaeologist investigating wrecked ship off Florida Keys - Lower Matecumbe Key, Florida. Photo credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Although most shipwrecks hold historic value, shipwrecks are important to locate for practical reasons as well. More modern shipwrecks are a significant cause of pollution from leaking fuel and the degradation of metal from the ship’s hull. These factors can be hazardous to the nutrient growth and marine life near the wreck. Shipwrecks can also be a navigational hazard by putting present day boaters in harm’s way and possibly condemning their vessels to a similar fate.


So how do underwater archaeologists ensure the preservation of these important pieces of history? The first is to leave the wreck in situ or as it was. This is the most cost effective method and allows future archaeological exploration. The next is full scale conservation by bringing the entire wreck to the surface and caring, storing, and displaying it forever. This method is rare as it can be very expensive. The last method is a mixture of In situ and conservation which involves bringing the most culturally significant artifacts to the surface while documenting the rest and leaving them in situ. In the case of the Regina and the USS Narcissus archaeologist choose to leave the sites in situ.


So, why would an archaeologist choose in situ and not excavation? Today, new technology such as remote sensing and more accurate sampling methods allow archaeologists to draw conclusions from these objects without ever having to remove them. Unlike in the past, the items themselves are not the prize but the information they provide about trade, transportation routes, and more that fill in holes about our past.


To learn more about Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves visit museumsinthesea.com. To learn more about how Florida’s 12,133 square miles of water affect our coastal communities join the Florida Maritime Museum on June 7th from 6-8pm for a FREE, family fun event for all ages. The event will include the grand opening for the newly renovated historic Burton Store, a temporary exhibit opening on “The Meaning Behind Maritime,” fun activities related to the sea, live music and more!

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Florida Maritime Museum, ​​Historical Resources Department for the Office of Ms. Angelina Colonneso, 
Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court and Comptroller