Entering the Virtual World of Underwater Archaeology

Gordon P. Watts and T. Kurt Knoerl 2007

This article was originally published in the book Out of the Blue: Public Interpretation of Maritime Cultural Resources and is reprinted here with permission.


Traditional public access to underwater archaeological resources has been limited by a variety of factors. The environment of submerged cultural resources restricts public access to those who are trained and competent to function underwater. Those certified to dive represent a very limited percentage of the American public. While museums, television programs, and publications reach a much larger and broader spectrum of the population, even those avenues have limitations. Today the internet provides unlimited access to the American public and offers an exciting opportunity to bring the world of underwater archaeology to virtually every element of our society. With the technology that exists today and that which will be available tomorrow, the non-diving public can be brought into the virtual world of underwater archaeological research.

Certainly the internet already has far-reaching consequences. In the short span of the last thirty years it has revolutionized both commerce and culture. But what promise does it really hold for underwater archaeology and its relationship with the general public? If today’s access is exciting, tomorrow’s potential is little short of overwhelming.

Traditional Public Access to Archaeology Underwater

Underwater archaeological research often is obscured from the general public by the environment. Investigations beneath oceans, sounds, rivers, and lakes are carried out in a limited visibility environment generally unsuited for public access or observation. A very limited number of excavations, like that performed within the cofferdam-encircled remains of the Revolutionary War British transport Betsy at Yorktown, Virginia, provided public access to underwater sites by means of a pier, interpretive exhibits, and educational personnel. Even with the cofferdam that isolated Betsy from the York River, however, public observation of archaeological activity on the wreck was restricted by almost 6 meters (20 feet) of dark water. Only the project staff, students, volunteers, and a limited number of divecertified visitors were able to share in the recovery of information and artifacts from the wreck.

At sites such as USS Monitor, sunk some 25 kilometers (16 miles) off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in 70 meters (230 feet) of water; CSS Alabama, sunk off the Normandy Peninsula in 60 meters (200 feet) of water; or even CSS H.L. Hunley, found in only 9 meters (30 feet) of water off the South Carolina coast, public access is virtually non-existent. With the exception of underwater archaeologists and specifically trained “technical” divers conducting research under permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on the remains of USS Monitor and French volunteer divers working on CSS Alabama, those important sites are inaccessible to the general public because of their hazardous environments and archaeological sensitivity. Unlike Monitor and Alabama, public access to Hunley is available as the vessel now is in an environmentally controlled conservation tank in the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina (See Hunter and Conlin, this volume).

Other, less sensitive shipwreck sites are open to the diving public and access is encouraged. The Florida Division of Historical Resources established eleven historic shipwrecks throughout the state as Underwater Archaeological Preserves in response to nominations from the public. In the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA designated nine shipwreck sites for diver access and provided interpretation as part of a shipwreck trail that extends from Key Largo to Key West. Both the State of Florida and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary produced interpretive exhibits and diver education slates that identify features of each site and provide historical data about the vessels.

While developed access to shipwreck resources provides an important educational and recreational outlet for the diving public, the percentage of the American public exposed to those submerged cultural resources is small. SHIPS like USS Monitor, CSS Alabama, and CSS Hunley are historically significant enough to generate interest in television programs. Programs about USS Monitor, CSS Alabama, and CSS Hunley have brought each vessel’s history and the on-site archaeological research to audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Television programs about submerged cultural resources significantly expand public access, but provide a somewhat limited and quickly dated perspective. Reruns increase accessibility but scheduling limits access to specific time frames. But what of the other, much larger but possibly less significant inventory of historic shipwrecks? One benefit of television programs is their stimulation of interest in museum exhibits and other forms of documentation. Museums provide public access to underwater archaeology through exhibits and educational programs that focus on the historical and archaeological significance of shipwrecks. Using artifacts, images, interactive exhibits, and programs, museums bring the historian’s and archaeologist’s work into direct contact with the public. Unfortunately, museum exhibits and programs also reach a limited percentage of the American population. That contact is expanded by publications that are developed in conjunction with exhibits, but the dissemination of information still is limited.

Publication is one of the most important obligations of the archaeologist. In most cases publication of a scientific report on an extended investigation of a complex site can require years of research and writing. When popular treatments of the investigation are published, they frequently are produced by authors other than the principal investigator, and publication often precedes the post-excavation analysis that links the archaeological findings to an historical context. The scientific publications that provide that link are not particularly suited for public consumption, and rarely benefit from wide circulation. Unless the archaeological site is particularly important or has been widely publicized, even popular treatments rarely receive wide distribution. Excavation and recovery of King Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose, sunk in the Solent in 1545, is a classic example of the often necessary time lag between on-site work and publication of scholarly and popular treatments. To further compound this problem, many scientific and popular volumes are priced out of the general public market as publication and distribution costs have risen rapidly.

Entering a Virtual Underwater World

While television productions, museum exhibits and programs, scientific and popular publications, and limited public access to submerged cultural resources will remain important venues for contact with our maritime heritage, a much broader point of public interaction already exists. That interface is the internet. While internet access does not represent direct contact with the resource, it offers many exciting advantages to be exploited, and the potential for public contact is virtually unlimited.

A number of internet sites already provide public access to underwater archaeological projects. Most of those provide insight into ongoing investigations, museum exhibitions, or management programs. An excellent example is the site for the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley, developed and maintained by the Friends of the Hunley. Like most internet sites for shipwreck projects, the Hunley site contains information on the history of the vessel, and documentation of the archaeology, recovery, and conservation of the hull. A downloadable animation of the recovery scenario and an interactive photographic image of the interior of the submarine add a unique touch to the data presented to the public (Figure 16.1). The interactive mosaic of the interior of Hunley is one of the best examples of the virtual interface currently on the internet.

Inside the Hunley

FIGURE 16.1. Friends of the Hunley website access to “Inside the Hunley” interactive panorama looking aft (Photo courtesy of Friends of the Hunley).

Historical and underwater archaeological research on the Civil War blockade runner Denbigh can be found at the Texas A&M University web site. The Denbigh site provides historical background for the ship that includes information about its construction, the ship’s officers, crew, and cargo. The archaeological investigationis documented with both a description and images of the on-site work. Computer generated illustrations of the hull’s midships and machinery provide a threedimensional reconstruction of Denbigh’s engineering space (Figure 16.2). An animated, computer-generated sectional illustration of a steam cylinder and valve chest provides a clear indication of how that machinery functioned. Although not accessible on the site, a computer-generated animated image of Denbigh underway illustrates how computer programs can be used to effectively recreate events now found only in the historical and/or archaeological record.

While the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary web site includes information about sanctuary programs and regulations, information about Monitor’s history and research at the site also can be found. Expeditions to the site that resulted in the recovery of significant elements of the ship’s structure, such as the propeller, engine, and turret, are well documented and illustrated. Information about Monitor-related educational programs and museum collections are interactive. Perhaps the most interesting interactive element of the site is a plan of the wreck that is tied to photographic images which provide insight into elements of the surviving structure (Figure 16.3).

More and more websites utilize video and animation with sound as means of communication. The Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704 website is a comprehensive look at the 1704 Indian attack on Deerfield, Massachusetts. An effective video introduction precedes numerous interactive elements that discuss the five cultures involved in the event (Figure 16.4).

A similar trend also can be seen in the increasing number of live web broadcasts. One example is the webcast conducted in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary by the partnership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Undersea Research Center for the North Atlantic & Great Lakes, and University of Connecticut’s Information Technology Services. Live underwater and shipboard video was transmitted via the web to the University of Connecticut and from there to students in West Hartford, Connecticut. While this type of event is beyond the means of many institutions, it does represent a trend toward the televisualization of the web in the not too distant future (Babb et al., 2002).

In addition to site-specific shipwreck projects, information on almost all maritime research and educational programs can be found on the internet. One of the oldest and most informative internet sites is operated by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) at Texas A&M University. The INA site offers detailed information about four decades of research activity, current investigations, artifact conservation, publications, membership, and links to other sites. One of the links is to the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M. That site provides information about courses of study, student research projects and resources, staff, staff activity, and career opportunities in the associated fields of research, management, and education.

Civil War blockade runner Denbigh

FIGURE 16.2. Computer model of the engineering space of the Civil War blockade runner Denbigh by Andy Hall (Image courtesy of Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University).

The INA/TAMU site is a valuable resource for potential students, students and professionals already in the field, and to the general public. Other university programs at the University of Rhode Island, East Carolina University, Florida State University, and several overseas institutions have web sites that provide insight into their programs.

In a partnership with the University of Rhode Island History department, coauthor Kurt Knoerl is working to develop the online Museum of Underwater Archaeology (MUA) that provides internet access to research conducted on underwater archaeological sites (Figure 16.5). The two initial sites in the virtual museum are the sloop Industry, a British supply vessel sunk off St. Augustine, Florida, in 1740, and the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, sunk off Cherbourg, France, in 1864 (Figure 16.6). Visitors to the URI-based site can explore the history of those SHIPS and archaeological investigation of the wreck sites, and can find a wide variety of additional sources of information. Images of artifacts from the wreck sites, historical documents, and information on the conservation of recovered materials can be downloaded (Figure 16.7).

Interactive map of the Monitor site

FIGURE 16.3. Interactive map of the Monitor site with associated feature illustrations on the NOAA Monitor National Marine Sanctuary website (Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

Many state agencies with responsibility for submerged cultural resources develop internet sites. Most provide information on state laws and regulations,survey and assessment requirements associated with the NHPA Section 106 Review Process, personnel, and agency management and research activity. At the Florida Department of State, the Division of Historical Resources maintains a website that features the activities of the Bureau of Archaeological Research (http://dhr.dos.state.fl.us/archaeology/). Among the more traditional sources of information on the website is the 1733 Spanish Galleon Trail. The Trail website affords net visitors an opportunity to explore the history and archaeology of thirteen shipwreck sites associated with the Spanish Plate Fleet of 1733. Those vessels were lost along the Florida Keys during a hurricane and their remains have been designated a shipwreck trail for divers visiting the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. While most of the wreck sites have been damaged by treasure hunting activity, they provide divers with an opportunity to examine surviving hull structure, ballast piles, and replica cannon scatters. The website also contains information on the Emanuel Point ship, one of the earliest sixteenth-century Spanish shipwrecks in North America, as well as information on the vessels included in the Underwater Archaeological Preserve program, developed with assistance from volunteer divers from throughout Florida. Plans are underway to create new web sites for each of the Preserves that will include interactive underwater virtual tours for internet visitors to access the shipwrecks without getting wet.

Raid on Deerfield

FIGURE 16.4. The interactive “Raid on Deerfield” internet website utilizes several forms of new media including a video introduction to the site (Image courtesy of Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association/Memorial Hall Museum).

Home page of the online Museum of Underwater Archaeology

FIGURE 16.5. Home page of the online Museum of Underwater Archaeology (Image courtesy of The Museum of Underwater Archaeology).

In North Carolina, the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Department of Cultural Resources maintains a web site associated with the responsibilities of the Office of Archaeology. The Underwater Archaeology Branch posts information on laws and regulations, the research they conduct, and their submerged cultural resource management activities such as the investigation of the remains of an early eighteenth-century vessel which may be Queen Anne’s Revenge, abandoned near Beaufort Inlet by the pirate Blackbeard in 1718. While a limited number of diving volunteers assisted with work at the wreck site itself, thousands of people visited the wreck via the internet and explored the history of Blackbeard and the archaeology and historical research associated with the Queen Anne’s Revenge project.

Like state agencies, U.S. federal agencies with submerged cultural resource management responsibility also maintain websites to disseminate information. The National Park Service (NPS) Submerged Resources Center maintains a website to provide information about regulations concerning diving in park properties, NPS research projects, associated publications, and accessible digital images. Similar information about fourteen National Marine Sanctuaries managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can be found at their website. Like the NPS website, the NOAA site contains information about regulations concerning sanctuary personnel, diving in sanctuary properties, NOAA research projects, sanctuary publications, and accessible digital images of sanctuary resources. NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program posts detailed information on its program and activities (www.maritimeheritage.noaa.gov).

Exploiting the Virtual Underwater World

While the internet sites available to the public today are both informative and popular, they also suggest what will be possible in the future. Today, wellfunded, technically advanced web site production is not typically a funded component of underwater archaeological investigations. However, as support for that aspect of research becomes a more integral part of project funding, and technology and training advance, the cost of building effective websites will decrease, thus enhancing the potential for bringing all aspects of underwater archaeology directly to the public.

CSS Alabama

FIGURE 16.6. A screen shot from the historical background section of the online Museum of Underwater Archaeology exhibit on CSS Alabama (Image courtesy of The Museum of Underwater Archaeology).

At the time of this writing, more than seventy-five percent of all American homes have internet access. As of October 2005, sixty-three percent of those homes were connected to the internet via broadband. That number is expected to top seventy percent by February 2006 (Web Site Optimization, 2006). This provides underwater archaeologists who wish to provide public access to their research an unprecedented opportunity for exposure.

To utilize the web as a means of educating the public, underwater archaeologists must understand its changing technical nature. The continuing growth of broadband access into the home illustrates, from an infrastructure standpoint, the internet is still in flux. Technology continues to develop at a frantic pace. The actual software and coding required to produce web pages also continues to evolve. Therein lies perhaps the greatest challenge to the underwater archaeologist and submerged cultural resource manager. Most underwater archaeologists have not been trained in the areas of web coding, design, layout, graphics editing, flash animation, or any of the other numerous technologies available to today’s web programmer.

methodology section

FIGURE 16.7. A screen shot from the methodology section of the online Museum of Underwater exhibit on CSS Alabama (Image courtesy of The Museum of Underwater Archaeology).

Those who have mastered some basic skills find they can quickly fall behind as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language, the basic coding language of the internet) is replaced by XHTML (a more standards-based approach), and as programming moves toward using other, more sophisticated models of coding such as Cascading Style Sheets and the Document Object Model. Even the software designed to aid in web development continues to evolve, making some tasks easier but simultaneously requiring a basic understanding of the new trends in programming. Underwater archaeology students in particular, who are busy learning the skills necessary to be good underwater archaeologists (and good scuba divers as well), now must add a host of computer-related technical skills to their already full academic plates. The good news, however, is that many of today’s students are acquiring internet skills at an early age and soon will enter college with an infinitely more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of the technological age.

Last, but by no means least important among the challenges for web-bound underwater archaeologists, is the potentially high cost of web development. The cost of training classes, software, server support, and professional web design firms can run into the hundreds if not thousands of dollars. High profile sites such as USS Monitor and CSS Hunley attract financial support at levels far above those available to the average underwater archaeologist. In fact, even many state agencies employ only one or two individuals who must work on an extremely small budget to maintain their agency’s technological capabilities. While many state underwater archaeologists have state-run websites, many often lack the time or money to keep their websites up to date. Consequently, the vast majority of underwater archaeological investigations never make it to the web where the tax-paying public can see their dollars at work.

Putting aside issues of time, money, and training, the changing nature of the web presents yet more problems in terms of presentation of information to the public. Printed material, books, magazines, and journal articles use fairly standardized ways of presenting information. Hundreds of years of publishing have resulted in certain conventions now taken for granted. Most books contain title pages, a table of contents, page numbers, text that does not extend to the very edge of the page, publishing information, and in some cases an index and footnotes. Many of these are taken for granted but their use was not always standard. Unlike books, web pages have not yet reached a state of equilibrium. More and more, some elements do seem to be developing as standard items on a webpage, such as site maps, search boxes, and left-side navigation links. Despite these trends, however, experimentation with layout continues. A further complication for the internet-inclined underwater archaeologist comes from the fact that currently, different web browsers (the software that interprets how to display a web page on the screen) can display the same page quite differently. Attempting to obtain acceptable results across browsers such as Internet Explorer (IE), Netscape, Firefox, and Safari can be a maddening experience. Even the current widespread use of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer does not prevent problems. Different versions of IE can display web pages differently. Even the most current version of IE does not comply with all of the standards accepted by other browsers (Wyke-Smith, 2005:4).

The Other Side of the Virtual Coin

Because internet access is available to a wide audience, those advocating treasure salvage over archaeology can have a public voice as far-reaching as that of professional archaeologists, thus competing for the public’s attention and support. But such openness also can have a beneficial impact. Several excellent and ethically committed avocational organizations such as the Marine Archaeological Research & Conservation (MARC) group and the Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society (MAHS), maintain websites offering an opposing viewpoint and providing valuable assistance to the professional community. Professionally trained underwater archaeologists must follow suit. While they may begin by using the internet as a means to reach a wider professional audience, they can not nor should not ignore the general public. Like it or not, archaeologists need to publish the results of their research on the web with a wider audience in mind. This is only fitting as the general public generally supports most archaeological research through their tax dollars. Indeed it is an archaeologist’s moral obligation to make their work available to the public. A survey of International Journal of Nautical Archaeology articles over the last decade revealed only one was dedicated to the use of websites as a means for distributing site report information to the general public. Written almost ten years ago, that article saw the potential in using the internet to reach a wide audience in a cost effect manner (Hall et al., 1997).

The internet offers the world for an audience. It provides an opportunity unprecedented in history. Faced with so many websites and points of view to examine, the general public not only needs the presence of professional archaeologists on the web but they also need to know how to tell the difference between scholarly work and biased propaganda. The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, in partnership with the American Journal of History, provides peer reviews of hundreds of historical websites along with tools and suggestions for discerning scholarly works from less credible sites.

Sites are evaluated on traditional scholarly standards. Reviewers examine the strength of a site’s thesis, its use of primary sources, its objectivity, and other criteria similar to those used for evaluating print journal articles. In addition, they review a site’s use of new media. How well does a site make use of the multi-sensory nature of the web? Is the navigation clear and useful? Is it current? Can the audience tell who is behind the project? Underwater archaeologists need to follow this example and set standards for website review as well as teach their students and the public how to critically judge sites for themselves. Too many teachers have stated they will not let their students cite websites in their assignments because, “there is too much garbage out there on the web.” A better alternative to running away from the problem is to teach students how to separate fact from fiction.

The Future of Underwater Archaeology on the Web

We began this chapter discussing some high-profile web sites such as those for Alabama, Hunley, and Monitor, and how the internet could bring underwater archaeology to a wider public audience than any other medium. But where will this medium take us in the future? To answer this we must recognize one enduring fact about the internet: despite the original intentions of its first designers, the web literally has a life and destiny of its own. Our current ideas about the future are vague guesses at best, as we are locked into past conceptions and linear thinking. Innovations often are unforeseen and take us in completely unexpected directions. Some near-term possibilities and their possible implications, however, are perhaps easier to see.

Several components of the internet are evolving at the same time. Infrastructure (the wires, satellites, fiber optic cables, switches, and routers that make up the physical and logical elements of networks), software (which includes web browsers, XHTML, and various website editing programs), and presentation hardware such as personal computers (PC), cellular phones, and hand-held devices are all developing and morphing into items unimagined only a few years ago.

Bandwidth speeds certainly will increase, thus freeing web developers from the restrictions of lengthy download times. Many web designers already have begun to code purely for broadband with the anticipation that dial-up users with slow 56K connections will make the transition to faster and cheaply available technologies such as DSL and cable modems. The increasing prevalence of broadband connections at work, topping eighty-seven percent as of November 2005, whetted the public’s appetite for broadband in the home (Web Site Optimization, 2006). Increasing speed will allow websites to offer more bandwidth-intensive videos and live web transmissions supplementing, rather than replacing, traditional text.

“I can’t read on the web,” is a common complaint by web viewers. Many users prefer to print out long passages of text rather than scroll or click their way through articles. The poor contrast and resolution of most computer screens compared to printed material has led some designers to adopt the philosophy of building pages with small chunks of text or lists. But here scholars and commercial designers part company when it comes to web design. Some web visionaries argue for the development and increased use of visualizations of data and history, suggesting computers have been more of a graphics tool than a processor of words. They promote a more prominent place for diagrams, maps, and other visual means within the discipline of history (Staley, 2003:3). This argument equally could apply to anthropologists and underwater archaeologists. In fact, the visual nature of material culture and spatial analysis seems particularly well-suited to display on the internet.

Others argue that we must hold steady to prose while screen technology catches up with the human eye and that we must not opt for the least common denominator (Cohen and Rosenzweig, 2005). Certainly screens will continue to improve, so while video usage will increase it is unlikely to replace text that can be created, edited, and posted far faster than editing a new video. More than likely, video will become more prevalent with underlying layers of text and still images for those who wish more in-depth coverage.

Designers easily can get caught up in the creative process when building web pages. Web sites that provide free code to make sites more interactive abound but developers are increasingly paying attention to the impact that code is having on the special needs of some disabled viewers. A variety of special tools such as screen readers for the blind and special track balls and keyboards for those with motor control problems require clean, concise code. Several simple techniques such as embedding image descriptions in the code, careful navigation, and limiting the use tables goes a long way to making their experience much more enjoyable. While this type of coding requires more effort it is the most responsible way to reach an even wider audience. The Human Factors International website provides a powerful tool that illustrates how inaccessible and accessible web pages sound through a screen reader for the blind or visually impaired. That website alone should be enough to convince most developers to take the time to incorporate accessibility into their web page design (see http://www.humanfactors.com/downloads/chocolateaudio.asp).

This is not to say that content creation will always be difficult. While there always will be a learning curve for producing web pages, especially interactive ones, future students will grow up reading online (Daniel Cohen, personal communication, 2005). Many members of the current generation of high school freshman cannot remember a time when there was no internet. Elementary school children are instructed in using presentation software such as Microsoft’s PowerPoint, despite vocal and occasionally heated opposition to its overuse (Tufte, 2006). Skills many current designers acquired late in life will be part of the standard foundation for all students. Aiding in this effort will be better content building software. Commercial products such as Adobe’s Dreamweaver and PhotoShop will no doubt continue to evolve and will have to compete with other products offering WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) simplicity.

Another change impacting the public’s interaction with the internet is the move toward standards-based web browser development. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was founded in 1994 in an effort to develop internet protocols or rules to be used as a standard for web development (W3C, 2006). Adherence to these protocols by all browsers would ensure a consistent result when viewing a website. While some browsers do not yet comply with these rules the industry is moving in that direction which is good news for web developers. Coding for one set of rules will simplify and shorten the amount of effort spent in developing new websites. Taken together, faster bandwidth, better software, education, and web protocols will lead to the resolution of many problems currently plaguing the internet and these advantages will no doubt be available to underwater archeologists.

Perhaps the most important element that will power future growth and development of advanced interactive websites is the database. The web is an ocean of information. Billions of pieces of information are available online. But are they truly available? As of 2004, the Google search engine contained more than four billion web pages in its index (Google, 2006). Even a simple search on Google for the word “shipwreck” returns over 1.7 million entries. Finding a needle in a haystack seems an easy trick compared to truly making use of so much online information. Yet the future trend toward standards in database construction seeks to allow for the interoperability of various databases. What this means in a practical sense is that databases created following agreed-upon standards can be linked and used to create larger organized datasets.

Harnessing databases into useable segments will power every major advance in web technology in the future, from virtual reality displays to artificial intelligence. True power lies in the ability to access information as needed. The MUA at the University of Rhode Island is working toward the creation of an online bibliographic database of underwater archaeological site reports from around the country. The idea is to take disparate sets of data maintained by various state and federal agencies and code them following proper standards. Anyone wishing to search on a topic or region to see what work has been done would be able to find that information in one location. But even more useful would be the ability to append that database to others, following the same standard but for different topics, such as terrestrial archaeology, commerce, or migration. Questions that could not even be asked, let alone answered, prior to the creation of such databases would now be possible. New information will be born out of this ability to create complex queries. Researchers will only be limited by their ability to compose their questions.

When we think of internet connections, we typically think of web pages stored on servers flowing into the personal computers in our homes and offices, sometimes through hard wires, sometimes through localized wireless networks. It is important to realize that our current modes for accessing the internet already are far more diverse than that, and are growing at a geometric rate. Hand-held devices, cellular phones, and laptop computers are all part of a trend of moving away from the PC as a primary means of viewing the internet.

Web designers, including those who create content for underwater archaeologists, are somewhat limited by the small amount of screen space available on the average PC. As the outlets for display increase it may be that websites will be liberated from these constraints. Imagine websites created specifically for the purpose of being viewed on large-screen television, like computers that allow the viewer to see high-definition web casts. Consider too how in truth, the reverse might have a greater impact on our lives. Future internet sites might allow a viewer at home to don a set of goggles and sensory clothing and take an immersive three dimensional virtual reality tour of a shipwreck site. The virtual visitor may perform a swim through the wreck complete with the sound of water and air bubbles. They might stop to touch a timber and in doing so call up information about its purpose through diagrams, historic photos, or an audio and video commentary by the principal archaeologist on the project.

Perhaps the user will wish to travel back in time and watch a computer simulation of the vessel in its working state. A three-dimensional model of the engine that may just have been seen as a deteriorated element of the wreck would now be shown in working order with explanations of how the parts functioned together. The vessel’s history would provide meaningful context to what had previously seemed merely a jumbled mass of rotting wood and rusting metal. Moving ahead again the viewer might witness a reenactment of the wrecking event itself.

Seen from the bottom of the sea, the wreck would descend and settle on the ocean floor, and through time-lapse images, the viewer would watch the ship deteriorate before their eyes. Returning to the present state of the virtual reality shipwreck, they would come to a section that appears not to have been excavated. At the virtual archaeological tour guide’s suggestion, they could access a virtual dredge and by waving it over a delineated test unit, expose layer after layer and receive comments about what can be learned from the exposed contents. For those who cannot take part in actual underwater archaeological excavations, such virtual reality experiences will bring them as close as possible to the real thing, and may foster an appreciation for what the work really entails and what can be learned from such investigations.

The database containing all the required information could be utilized by exhibit designers and archaeologists to make such computer-generated narratives possible. But even more importantly, the existence of such databases and the tools to access them will allow visitors to construct their own stories as they decide which elements of the wreck, what portions of its history, engineering, or cultural evidence they want to examine. A simple query will become an act of creation. While databases are not narratives on their own, search capabilities offer researchers a way to use previously disconnected sets of arbitrary data and to move one step closer to creating their own narrative based on their own goals (Manovich, 2001:227).

How, then, do we take advantage of the opportunities presented by the internet? Fortunately much of the necessary data is, or can be, collected during traditional underwater investigations. Video footage, still photography, maps of test units, hand drawings, and field notes are all part of current recording practices. Underwater archaeologists must begin to recognize that internet-publishable documentation of their work can include more than the information collected from the wreck, the associated artifacts, and the conclusions drawn from their analysis. It should also document the data collection process. Sharing the experience of how data was recovered is important in recreating the entire experience for the general public. Evidence of that interest can be seen in the field schools in underwater archaeology so popular with sport divers who want to do more than just swim around wreck sites. They want to experience and touch history for themselves in meaningful ways.

Students and volunteers express pride in knowing they have joined in the recovery of data and contributed to the historic record in an ethically sanctioned manner. The understanding and excitement generated by virtual shipwreck surveys may inspire more volunteers to get involved with actual projects and motivate the general public to support protection of existing and newly discovered sites. Only a small fraction of the population has the training and resources to dive and work on actual shipwreck sites. For everyone else, the internet may well offer the most exciting opportunity for sharing the excitement of discovering our maritime heritage that is preserved beneath the waves.


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