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.
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.
11 Jun 2016
In 2003 underwater sonar was being used to locate a Swedish reconnaissance plane that had been shot down in the Baltic Sea in 1952 during the cold war.Read more
04 Jun 2016
Almost 400 years ago, in the hours before dawn on 4 June 1629, a flagship of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the Batavia was wrecked upon Morning Reef near Beacon Island, some 60 kilometres off the Western Australian coast.Read more
20 May 2016
In the spirit of National Archaeology Week 2016 we took the opportunity to open the floor to you, our audience and community, with the hashtag #AskAnArchaeologist. This was a chance for you to ask your questions about all things archaeology and maritime heritage to our team.Read more
29 Apr 2016
In my first week of a professional development fellowship based at the Historiska Museet in Stockholm I was pleasantly surprised to be handling Viking Age objects and assisting in selecting some for a display of maritime finds at the famous World Heritage site Birka.Read more
20 Aug 2015
The devastating wreck of the Dunbar on Sydney’s South Head on the evening of 20 August 1857, 158 years ago, was a disaster so appalling that it left a lasting emotional scar on the emerging colony of New South Wales.Read more
22 Jun 2015
Next time you visit the Australian National Maritime Museum, make sure you take a peek under the north wharf for a glimpse of our new artificial reef. Last week we installed a series of six Reef Balls® — purpose-built artificial reef habitats for sea creatures donated by the NSW Department of Primary Industries.Read more
27 Mar 2015
After having watched the waves pile up on top of the surrounding reefs for the last five days it was a great relief to finally get out from behind Waier Island and make our way slowly over to the western end of the Cumberland Entrance to commence searching for the wreck of the Hydrabad.Read more