By Troy Nowak, Assistant State Underwater Archeologist, Maryland Historical Trust
“Catch anything?” is positively the most common question we are asked on the water.
“Perhaps?” is usually the correct answer, but not an answer anyone would expect or understand without explanation. There is never time to explain when piloting a skiff with a cable attached to a towfish astern, and crabpots, pilings, or other obstructions dead ahead. The answer is usually a simple “No,” hopefully not accompanied by a scramble to avoid collision.
Contrary to popular belief, we are never fishing and rarely searching for any particular archeological site or shipwreck. As part of the Maryland Historical Trust, Maryland’s State Historic Preservation Office, most of our time on the water is related to routine site inspections of areas where construction is planned, or surveys of areas where development is expected or erosion is accelerating.
Each year roughly 700 projects receiving state or federal licenses, permits, or funding find their way to our desks for review in compliance with state and federal historic preservation laws. All involve activities with potential to impact submerged archeological historic properties and reviews of these projects can take from ten minutes to years of coordination with government agencies and project sponsors. Very few, about ten per year, require site inspections; even less result in recommendations to government agencies for archeological studies prior to construction or other ground disturbance. This process is the frontline against loss of submerged archeological sites and/or the information they can provide to development.
Most site inspections and surveys involve reconnaissance of a discrete area using a side scan sonar, a marine magnetometer, and an echo sounder. Side scan sonar allows us to record detailed images of submerged lands and objects regardless of water clarity and the marine magnetometer helps us find submerged and buried shipwrecks, wharves, or other structures or objects which cause localized distortions in the earth’s magnetic field. The echo sounder is largely used to make sure we don’t run the instruments or the skiff aground, but we can also use the data it collects to produce bathymetric maps which can allow comparisons between current bottom topography and historic charts and maps.
We rarely know if we “caught” anything significant without further work – typically including data processing and review, library and archival research, more survey, and occasionally diving.
Discovery of new sites not only happens during formal site inspections and surveys, but also, and quite often, during the trip home. We typically stow the magnetometer before we depart the area we are formally investigating. It is towed nearly 70 feet astern during operation creating a complication and potential hazard while cruising among other vessels. We often leave the sonar in the water, as it is usually either pole mounted or towed very close alongside, and adjust its range to cover a large area. Now painting in broad strokes, the sonar produces coarse-grained images unsuitable for a typical archeological survey, but good enough to detect large objects protruding from or sitting on the bottom.
The return trip usually is planned in advance to pass or quickly inspect areas where the remains of old boats and ships may be hiding, such as inlets where they were often discarded, and shoals where they often ran aground. This is usually the most relaxing and exciting part of the day. The work is done and we can use our knowledge, skill, and a bit of luck to “catch a big one.”
We are often fortunate enough to share the excitement of discovery with volunteers who assist at the helm or scrutinize incoming data for any indication of potential targets. When we get a “bite” we normally turn around and readjust the sonar to capture clear images such as the wooden shipwreck recorded by volunteer Bill Utley and me after the Maryland Maritime Archeology Program’s final site visit of 2017 (see shipwreck photo above). We look forward to returning to the site to learn more about its identity and significance and to more site visits, surveys, and discoveries like this one in 2018.
This post was adapted from Charting the Past: 30 Years of Exploring Maryland’s Submerged History, a booklet written in celebration of Maryland Archeology Month – April 2018.
The Maryland Maritime Archeology Program was established in 1988 in response to the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, which encourages states to study, protect, preserve, and manage shipwrecks embedded in or on state-controlled submerged lands, and in recognition of the importance of Maryland’s varied submerged cultural resources. The program inventories and manages these resources in collaboration with non-profit organizations and government agencies and shares information with the public through its education and outreach activities.