Maritime archaeology is the scientific study of underwater cultural heritage and related land-based sites.
Underwater cultural heritage refers to all traces of human existence with cultural, historical or archaeological character that have been partially or totally submerged. Shipwrecks are the most commonly known type of underwater cultural heritage. Submerged aircraft, military defence systems, wharfs, jetties, port and fishing facilities and inundated human occupation sites are also included in this definition.
The museum runs a Maritime Archaeology Program that advises and actively helps Commonwealth, state agencies and overseas government authorities responsible for underwater cultural heritage.
The program provides advice and resources by:
- Sending trained staff to underwater cultural heritage sites to help survey, excavate, interpret and preserve them
- Advising on collection management, conservation and acquisition of underwater cultural heritage material
- Advising on international recommendations and policies including those of the International Congress of Maritime Museums (ICMM), the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.
- Advising on relevant legislation
Contact us for a copy of the policy.
The museum follows strict guidelines around displaying, lending and acquiring archaeological material.
* Archaeological material recovered from 4 pre-colonial Dutch shipwrecks off Western Australia's coast (displayed in Navigators) and materials recovered other underwater cultural heritage sites have undergone official approval. Under the 1972 Australian - Netherlands Committee on Old Dutch Shipwrecks (ANCODS), the museum is the commonwealth repository of selected material from the Dutch shipwrecks.
* The museum does not buy or accept archaeological material, except in special circumstances. When we are offered material, we investigate transferring it to the designated national or state authority, or relevant state museum or cultural institution.
* When the museum borrows archaeological material for display, the material must have been obtained in accordance with the 1990 ICMM recommendations. The material must not have been excavated for profit and it must have been legally obtained, excavated scientifically and ethically, and the archaeological collection preserved intact.
The museum receives many requests from Australia and overseas to acquire, borrow or lend archaeological material. Our Maritime Archaeology Program Policy includes guidelines about ethical practices and legislation, and aims to curb the destruction of underwater cultural heritage sites, and illegal or unethical trade in artefacts.
Contact us for a copy of the policy.
See Borrowing from the Collection
If you are interested in researching shipwrecks around Australia there are many online resources to help. The museum’s Library also has journal articles and conference papers by museum staff which are available online.
* Australian National Shipwreck Database
* Maritime Heritage Online New South Wales
* Historical Shipwrecks in Australia
* Shipwrecks Contacts for each State
* Shipwrecks Corrosion and Conservation
Shipwrecks are protected by commonwealth and state legislation.
* Historic Shipwrecks Act, 1976
* The Protection Of Movable Cultural Heritage Act, 1986
* New South Wales: Heritage Act (1977)
* Northern Territory: Heritage Conservation Act (1991)
* Queensland: Queensland Heritage Act (1992)
* South Australia: Heritage Places Act 1993
* South Australia: Historic Shipwrecks Act (1981)
* Tasmania: Historic Cultural Heritage Act (1995)
* Victoria: Heritage Act (1995)
* Victoria: Heritage (Underwater Cultural Heritage) Regulations 2017
* Western Australia: Maritime Archaeology Act 1973
The Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (AIMA) is the professional body for Australian maritime archaeologists.
The association produces a newsletter and a scholarly journal, the Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, and has a regular conference with papers from Australia and overseas. Publications produced by AIMA are available at the Vaughan Evans Library.
The AIMA Bulletin is the first publication point for maritime archaeological research in Australia. The AIMA website contains useful information, including contacts, an index to the Bulletin and past issues of the newsletter available online. The Bulletin is also indexed by the abstracting and indexing service APAIS which is available online at many libraries around Australia. In some larger libraries, such as university libraries and state libraries, this resource is available as a full text service.
The HistArch discussion list is useful for keeping up-to-date with Australian and international developments in maritime archaeology. This a moderated list.
If you have a question about the museum’s Maritime Archaeology Program or our collection please contact:
Kieran Hosty, Manager, Maritime Archaeology Program
Phone: +61 2 9298 3710
Featured image: Lee Graham conducts a 3D photogrammetric survey of one of ‘Morgan’s anchors’ at site KR11. Image: Renee Malliaros/Silentworld Foundation.
ABC Radio: Australian National Maritime Museum Maritime Archaeologist Dr James Hunter discusses the shipwreck of Itata.Listen Now
Imagine being the first people to find the remains of a troop ship that has been lost underwater for more than 180 years. Or helping excavate the wreck of a frigate that was sent to recapture HMAV Bounty and its mutinous crew and was itself lost on the Great Barrier Reef in 1791. The museum’s maritime archaeological team keeps busy surveying and documenting fascinating wrecks and artefacts.
Here are some of the exciting projects we’ve worked on.
14 Sep 2020
How do you share a historic shipwreck with those who aren't divers or maritime archaeologists? The museum's Curator of RAN Maritime Archaeology, Dr James Hunter, teamed up with Professor Holger Deuter and seven masters students from Germany's University of Applied Sciences, Kaiserslautern to allow anyone to participate in a 'virtual dive' on PS Herald, a wrecked sidewheel steamship that lies off North Head at the entrance to Sydney Harbour.Read more
20 Aug 2020
On this day in 1857, the Dunbar wrecked near the entrance to Sydney Harbour. With the loss of 121 passengers and crew, the wreck is one of Australia's worst maritime disasters in peacetime. Museum maritime archaeologist Kieran Hosty recounts the fateful night and aftermath of this tragic event.Read more
22 May 2020
Nearly 200 years after its loss, the barque South Australian was relocated by a research consortium that included the museum's maritime archaeology team. Dr James Hunter and Kieran Hosty share the story of South Australia's oldest recorded European shipwreck, and the effort to find, document and preserve it.Read more
21 Dec 2019
The museum’s Registration team recently digitised 127 documents related to the working life and horrific wrecking of SS Federal. Curator of Ocean Science and Technology Emily Jateff provides an overview of the shipwreck and its discovery.Read more
13 Dec 2019
Investigations continue into the 18th-century shipwreck that lies on the muddy sea-floor of Newport Harbor, Rhode Island. Is it HMB Endeavour? Dr James Hunter, Kieran Hosty and Irini Malliaros provide key insights from the latest fieldwork.Read more
23 May 2019
Before Emily joins the panel discussion for our special National Archaeology Week Ocean Talk this evening, we asked her some rapid fire questions.Read more