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
* Shipwrecks Corrosion and Conservation

Shipwrecks are protected by commonwealth and state legislation.

Commonwealth Legislation
* Historic Shipwrecks Act, 1976
* The Protection Of Movable Cultural Heritage Act, 1986
State Legislation
* 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.

You can choose from a range of courses in maritime archaeology, from short courses to postgraduate degrees. AIMA offers the AIMA/NAS Maritime Archaeology training course. Flinders University and James Cook University offer postgraduate and shorter courses in maritime archaeology.

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
Email: khosty@sea.museum

Featured image:  Lee Graham conducts a 3D photogrammetric survey of one of ‘Morgan’s anchors’ at site KR11. Image: Renee Malliaros/Silentworld Foundation.

Museum Discoveries
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.

Ashmore Reef Expedition 2015 – Part Six

13 Mar 2015

After a six hour voyage punching through 3-metre high seas created by the 40 knot North-westerly wind The Boss, with Maggie II in tow, passed through Hibernia Passage. We arrived at the anchorage on the north-western side of Mer Island at the eastern entrance to the Torres Strait.

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Ashmore Reef Expedition 2015 – Part Five

27 Feb 2015

Overnight, the wind from the north-west has abated a little and the swell on the northern exposed edge of Ashmore Reef, where the wreck site is located, has decreased. This allowed us to get dive teams on-site nice and early to take advantage of the calmer seas.

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Ashmore Reef Expedition 2015 – Part Four

23 Feb 2015

Although the Bureau of Meteorology had indicated that we were in for a long spell of great diving conditions — with blue skies and calm seas — the team woke up this morning to grey overcast skies and a stiff breeze from the north-west resulting in a considerable surf building up on the northern edge of the reef.

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Ashmore Reef Expedition 2015 – Part Three

13 Feb 2015

The first task today was to buoy the major features of the site including the two anchor clusters, the iron carronades and the various grouping of iron knees and riders and then plot the positions of these features onto a site plan with the help of a GPS.

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Ashmore Reef Expedition 2015 – Part Two

12 Feb 2015

After an 18-hour trip, the expedition team arrived at the northern edge of Ashmore Reef on board the expedition vessel The Boss. Towed behind The Boss were one of two rigid hull inflatable boats (RIBs) and the Silentworld Foundation’s small survey catamaran Maggie II – also known as The Caravan of Courage because of its unique deck cabin that looks remarkably like a small 1970s caravan.

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Ashmore Reef Expedition 2015 - Part One

09 Feb 2015

Ashmore Reef is a 30 kilometre long, isolated, lagooned coral reef system located more than 950 kilometres north of Cairns, Queensland, some 250 kilometres east of Thursday Island, Torres Strait and 30 kilometres offshore from the extreme northern end of the Great Barrier Reef in the Australian Coral Sea Territory.

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Mouths of Gold

05 Jun 2014

The wreck of the Dunbar in 1857 is a well-known story in Sydney and the effect it had on the colony at the time. One of the outcomes of the wreck was the recovery of the artefacts it left behind.

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