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Rethinking Deep Water Archaeology
by Andrea Cohen, MIT Sea Grant

When David Mindell describes diving 3,000 feet in a nuclear submarine and eyeballing a Roman shipwreck unseen by humans since its sinking 2,000 years back, it's hard not to think of him as a time traveler. Mindell was part of the team that surveyed two Phoenician shipwrecks from the 8th-century B.C. off of Ashkelon, Israel; he has searched for ancient wrecks in the Black Sea; he surveyed the USS Yorktown, sunk in the Battle of Midway; and he's surveyed the ironclad Civil War ship USS Monitor.

David Mindell and student
David Mindell and Sarah Webster navigating on the Black Sea. Photo credit: DeepArch

As both a historian of technology and an engineer, MIT's Mindell develops methods for surveying deep water wrecks, and more broadly, developing new ways of thinking about archaeology in deep water. The Dibner Associate Professor in the History of Engineering and Manufacturing in the Program on Science, Technology, and Society (STS) and director of MIT's DeepArch Research Group is aided by MIT graduate students Brendan Foley, a Ph.D. candidate in the STS program, Brian Bingham, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Katie Croff, who's pursuing a dual Ph.D. in Ocean Engineering and Deep Water Archaeology. Their research is funded in part by MIT Sea Grant.

"The deep ocean is a really strange and fascinating place, and it records human history in a unique way," explains Mindell. "I work a lot in archives and you learn things there, but there are things in the ocean that are not in any of the archives." In the 1990s, when hunting down Roman ship remains with Bob Ballard and surveying wrecks from the War of 1812 with the archaeologist Margaret Rule, Mindell realized that no one was thinking about how this new field of deep ocean archaeology should look. "It's one thing to survey a Roman shipwreck. It's another thing to really ask, what does this mean or what does this add to our understanding of the past," he points out.

Mindell and students
Ann Marie Polsenberg, Brian Bingham, Brendan Foley, and David Mindell on the R/V Aegeo off the coast of Nisyros, Greece. Photo credit: DeepArch

So Mindell began building a research group and taking graduate students to sea. And just as importantly, he started forging links between various disciplines. "We were explicitly trying to make connections between oceanographers, archaeologists, and engineers. We're standing in the middle of all these things and thinking about the field as a whole," he says. He admits that most archaeologists weren't initially thrilled by a seeming outsider muscling into their territory with brash ideas. But Mindell and the technologies he champions have labored to win over skeptics. "They were always surprised to find an engineer who knows about ancient history and how to think about ancient history," he notes.

Also surprising is Mindell’s hands-off approach to antiquity. Most archaeologists are accustomed to touching and harvesting what they find. However, wooden shipwrecks resting hundreds or thousands of meters deep in undisturbed water are, for preservation’s sake, best left undisturbed. With that in mind, Mindell and his students have been developing non-invasive, acoustic techniques similar to the ultrasound methods used to glimpse fetuses inside pregnant women. In the ocean, the idea is to look inside the seafloor and try to make a three-dimensional model of a shipwreck that's buried in the mud without ever touching it.

The instrument—a high-frequency, narrow-beam, sub-bottom profiler—projects a narrow sonar beam into the seafloor to "see" down into the mud. Combining this data with computerized control and mapping, archaeologists can conduct a "virtual excavation" of a wreck site, i.e., create a 3-D computerized model, removable in layers, without disturbing the wreck. Mindell and colleagues first used the device successfully off the coast of Israel —the first example of developing a tech-nology to meet a specific deep water archaeological requirement.

While that mission involved JASON, WHOI's well-known remotely-operated vehicle (ROV), a survey in the Aegean in 2001 employed autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) from MIT Sea Grant and its commercial spin-off, Bluefin Robotics. AUVs, says Mindell, will let researchers save money by using a much smaller ship and fewer people, with simpler logistics. Brian Bingham has been developing precision navigation techniques for the AUVs. "For archaeology it is critical to precisely determine the location of artifacts and to build quantitative, precise maps using remote sensing," he points out. This spring he will join Mindell and others for further surveying of the USS Monitor off the coast of North Carolina.

"We do projects that are both archaeologically cutting edge and technically cutting edge. So we’re both exploring the sea floor and doing something new at the same time," says Mindell. "MIT students love this because they take the knowledge that they gain in the classroom and take it into the field," where they’re challenged to make a delicate technology function in a ferocious natural environment.

"Literally, every time I've taken a student to sea on one of these projects they’ve changed their career plans. That surprised me. I always tell them, there aren't really any jobs in this yet. It’s so new nobody knows what it looks like. That doesn’t seem to bother them. They just want to do the work, and that’s the right attitude." Meanwhile, Mindell gets at least one inquiry a week from a student who wants to come do graduate work in this field. And, he says, "most of them I turn away because we don’t have a graduate program in this." Not yet, at least.

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