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.
24 Jul 2017
David Mearns is one of the world’s pre-eminent shipwreck hunters. His company, Blue Water Recoveries, has an 88% recovery rate.Read more
05 Apr 2017
Flush with the exhilaration of discovering site KR12 and the ship’s bell, the team set to work the following morning (16 January) to document finds.Read more
07 Mar 2017
While the dive team was busy documenting sites KR10 and KR11 on the morning and afternoon of 14 January, the magnetometer team took advantage of the calm weather and sea conditions to run a survey along the outside of the entire Kenn Reefs system.Read more
28 Feb 2017
One of the major goals of the Kenn Reefs expedition was to find Hope, the small cutter built from material salvaged from Bona Vista, and later lost during the rescue of the brig’s crew.Read more
06 Feb 2017
While the magnetometer crew conducted its initial search west of Observatory Cay, a second team embarked upon a metal detector survey of the cay itself and searched for evidence of survivor camps associated with the wrecked vessels Bona Vista and Jenny Lind.Read more
31 Jan 2017
The Australian National Maritime Museum and Silentworld Foundation recently led an expedition to the Australian Coral Sea Territory to conduct an archaeological survey of historic shipwrecks lost at Kenn Reefs during the nineteenth century.Read more
17 Oct 2016
On a cold sunny morning in June 2016, Silentworld Foundation Director and maritime archaeologist Paul Hundley steered the survey vessel Maggie III into shallow water at the head of Berrys Bay on Sydney’s North Shore.Read more
23 Aug 2016
New South Wales hosts a wide variety of historic shipwreck sites. These range from large, fully exposed and intact hulls to smaller, largely disarticulated, dispersed, and buried structural components and artefacts.Read more