Underwater Archaeologists Turn To Scuba Divers To Help Monitor Historic Resources

Oct 20, 2017

Florida’s coastlines and cavern systems are dotted with historic sites, from World War II era shipwrecks, to Spanish galleons, to remnants of thousand year old civilizations. But there aren’t enough archaeologists to keep up with the underwater preservation. Now the state is training amateur scuba divers to pick up some of the slack.

A scuba diver learns how to assist underwater archaeologists in a backyard swimming pool.
Credit Kate Payne via WFSU

Della Scott-Ireton is on a mission to teach Floridians what underwater archaeology is. First lesson: it's not the study of dinosaurs. She helps run the Florida Public Archaeology Network, where she trains volunteers in marine preservation.

“Just like our colleagues on land we lay out square grids underwater, we use PVC, we excavate in layers, just like out colleagues on land, and take very careful notes and recordings,” Scott-Ireton said.

She’s giving a roomful of hobbyist scuba divers a crash course in monitoring underwater historic sites. It’s part of the submerged sites education and archaeological stewardship program, or SSEAS. She says non-disturbance is key.

“We’re not going to be disturbing the bottom sediments. We won’t be excavating, we’re going to be recording whatever is sticking above the sea floor," she said. "And so there’s really easy ways to do that and that’s always the first thing archaeologists do on any shipwreck site to figure out what is there. What’s the bow what’s the stern? How big is it? And that’s stuff we can use, we as archaeologists, can use help with.”

Florida has 12 designated shipwreck preserves, sort of underwater state parks, as well as many historic structures and archaeological sites, thousands of which are threatened by sea level rise.

“So this is real-world needed work that archaeologists just can’t get to because we’re tasked with 9,000 other things,” Scott-Ireton said.

The ships need monitoring, for littering and looting. Plaques need cleaning. And research teams need volunteers to measure and document sites.

“If we hear about something that uncovers, on the beach or in the water, we get a report, I may not be able to get to Bradenton Beach tomorrow. But I know who I can call in Bradenton and say, grab the SSEAS divers, go check this out for me. So that’s what I’m hoping we can do for you all as well,” Scott-Ireton said.

The next step is for the students to test out their knowledge.

The archaeologists-to-be are taking turns swimming to the bottom of a backyard pool to measure “artifacts” in full scuba gear. Archaeologist Nicole Grinnan guides them through.

“I think what we’re doing with this is not necessarily getting detailed scientific drawings of the site. It’s mostly to get an idea of the extent of the site, any major artifact features, or features of the shipwreck. Enough so that we can put it something like the Florida Master Site File, or update our records,” Grinnan said.

Today the artifacts are store-bought pots. But there’s a lot to practice: gearing up, writing underwater on special paper, using sign language to communicate. Maritime archaeologists just have more to think about, says corrections officer and scuba diver Dennis Pumphrey.

“You have to worry about the barracudas, sharks, different other stuff. But I mean that’s fun,” Pumphrey said. 

Pumphrey is hooked.

“There’s just so much history all over the place. And being able to get to it is neat,” he said.

He and his wife Sally Cole-Pumphrey already have their next scuba trips planned out.

“Thousands of spots I want to check out…There’s an old graveyard that’s in a lake, Jocassee. Figuring out how to do the charcoal underwater is going to be interesting,” he said laughing.

Looting can be an issue with all archaeological sites, but especially with shipwrecks. Part of what appeals to Sally Cole-Pumphrey is the idea of preserving the history, and leaving the objects behind for future visitors and researchers.

“You might be able to tell from the pottery itself, but as far as the location for the relative dating…when you take it out of context like that without documenting it, you lose that. Well now ok, you’ve got a neat little thing to look at, but historically you have nothing,” Cole-Pumphrey said.

After this training, the Pumphrey’s will be qualified to support research teams. They plan to get involved with future dives along the Aucilla River. The last big finding from the area? A 14,500 year old knife from one of the earliest civilizations in North America.