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Sinking of CSS Alabama
WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060


The Archaeology of Navies: Establishing a Theoretical Approach and Setting of Goals

by Robert S. Neyland

(Material contained herein is made available for the purpose of peer review and discussion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.)


This paper has a two-fold purpose: one is to promote the study of naval archaeological sites as the remains associated with the specialized missions of navies - a specialization that requires development of its own research objectives and methodology. The second purpose is to consider the current status of archaeological research conducted on naval sites, particularly those of the U.S. Navy, and to establish future priorities and goals.

Orser and Fagan (1995), in their text Historical Archaeology, point out types of sites that are studied by function, of which a prominent example is military sites. Terrestrial archaeologists have focused on military sites, forts and battlefields for some time as deserving special consideration. Battlefields have been restudied with archaeological methods, as with studies of the battle of the Little Bighorn (Fox 1993; Scott et al. 1989), such that this analysis changed interpretations of historic events.

Studying Naval Shipwrecks

Is the archaeological record of naval shipwrecks amenable to study as a specialized military site type? Warships, smaller combat craft, military transports, auxiliary craft, privateers and naval aircraft are our primary naval sites. Naval shipyards, smaller structures such as caissons or floating gun emplacements, and the sites of naval battles should not be excluded from study. We should keep in mind that while armies put their resources into forts and camps, navies put theirs into ships.

Warships and the other smaller naval craft are highly specialized structures, designed to convey men and supplies, and to conduct missions of war, exploration, or diplomacy, and to provide a home at sea. They contain communities, made up of individuals with dissimilar backgrounds, frequently multi-ethnic, which are organized in a hierarchy to function as a unit. Warships are monumental structures and can represent the product of the best construction techniques, skills, and materials of their time. Warships can also be the opposite of deliberate and expensive constructions. An arms race occurs in times of conflict, resulting in hurried and expedient constructions. Naval shipwrecks thus offer an obvious wealth of technical and architectural information.

The cognitive decisions of individuals are evident in the archeological remains of navies. Unlike archaeological sites from prehistory or the wrecks of unknown merchantmen, the impact of individual decisions in producing the archaeological record, and the course of history, can be considered with the remains of naval vessels that reflect naval and military strategy of their time. Naval victories and defeats have been pivotal to the fate of nations. A long history of naval engagements supports this statement - Ramses II defeat of the Sea People, the Battle of Lepanto, destruction of the Spanish Armada, the Battle of Midway, among others - all of which are turning points in history.

The methodology of research on navy shipwrecks may not differ dramatically from other archaeological research. It should be kept in mind, however, that with naval and other stateowned vessels there is often more documentation than exists on merchant ships. This in itself calls for a thorough use of documents as well as archaeological materials. Another consideration is that warships, as well as protecting a nation's interests at sea, were built as a national symbol, to make a political statement, and perhaps even express the nation's world view. As Dr. Kevin Crisman. an underwater archeologist who studied the naval vessels of Lake Champlain, expressed in a personal communication, "A warship is not just a ship, but a statement." How these vessels reflect the military strategy or national view of their time is a relevant issue for research and interpretation.

Archaeological Potential of Naval Vessels

The archaeological remains of navies might have great potential, but how is this potential realized? A survey of articles in the International Journal of Nautical Archeology (IJNA) and Underwater Archaeology Proceedings from the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference, now Underwater Archaeology (UA) reveals that most articles on naval shipwrecks consist of preliminary reports on surveys and excavations.

The percentage of naval sites discussed in IJNA and UA differs. In UA, from 1987 to 1997, articles on naval sites range from 16 to 35% of each years' contribution, averaging 22%. For IJNA, the proportion is significantly lower with only 10% of the articles considering military ships, including ancient warships and artillery. The reason why UA has a greater percentage of articles on military shipwrecks versus IJNA is unclear, but the higher proportion may represent the strong archaeological record in the United States of naval sites and the interest in the historic period in which the nation's navies became well established.

Recent conferences have resulted in monographs, such as The Archaeology of Ships of War (Bound 1995) and Artefacts from Wrecks (Redknap 1997) that have many thoughtful and analytical papers dealing with naval sites or materials from such sites. There are also some well done, scholarly books that provide meaningful analysis of naval shipwrecks and combine these with the existing historical records. Kevin Crisman (1983; 1987) has done outstanding work on the Lake Champlain vessels USS Ticonderoga and USS Eagle. The National Park Service-Submerged Cultural Resources Unit has done by far the best work on World War II shipwrecks at Pearl Harbor, Bikini, and in Micronesia (Carrell 1991; Lenihan 1989; Delgado, Lenihan and Murphy 1991). It should be obvious that the potential is being tapped but that it is underutilized.

The most immediate and significant contributions have been to our understanding of the history of ship construction, studies that essentially fill in gaps in our technical knowledge. The most obvious benefits are in the excavations of ancient and medieval warships. Evidence of ancient warships, such as the Athlit Ram found off Israel (Casson and Steffy 1991), the remains of two warships found off the coast of Sicily (Freschi 1995; Riccardi 1995), and the late Roman River warships of Mainz, Germany (Høckmann 1985), have increased our understanding of the construction of ancient oared warships, rams, and early naval strategies. Investigations of the 15th-century Henry V's Grace Dieu (Hutchinson 1995:22-25) and the 16th-century Tudor warship Mary Rose (Rule and Dobbs 1995:26-29) have taught us a vast amount about late medieval warship construction and provided insights into the transition from clinker to carvel construction. Contributions to the history of ordnance parallel those to the history of ship construction. Likewise the knowledge of small arms and their use aboard ship has grown accordingly and made possible improved typologies.

An important use of naval shipwrecks is that their artifact assemblages provide more accurate dating and complete typologies. Shipwrecks represent sites with known dates and thus their ceramic assemblages are used to improve ceramic typologies used for dating less well-documented sites. Typologies for other artifact classes can be improved by using artifact collections from naval shipwrecks which are accurately dated. This is particularly true for those artifacts that rarely survive on terrestrial sites due to their fragility or, in the case of metal artifacts, recycling.

Naval shipwrecks can be studied as social sites-how their assemblages reveal life on board communities of differing classes, organization of shipboard space, nutrition and hygiene. Artifacts from the Swedish warship Kronan, the English Mary Rose, and the British army transport Betsy have been used to infer class distinctions on board ships (Einarsson 1997:209-18; Hildred 1997:5l-72; Broadwater 1995:58-63). In a Dutch shipwreck, Vlierman (1997) contrasts a merchantman outfitted for war with assemblages found on commercial counterparts to illustrate the increase in manning of the former.

Some researchers have shown how our knowledge of a specific battle or military strategy can be increased through analysis of archaeological finds. The provenance of weapons found on board Mary Rose has been used to interpret spatial organization of small weapons, and may reveal shipboard strategies and battle readiness (Hildred 1997). Colin Martin's research shows that a confusing multiplicity of gun sizes, ammunition and gunners' rules hindered gunnery performance of the Spanish Armada (Martin 1997). The recovery and study of the Blakely cannon from the CSS Alabama reveals that the gun was underweight and thus substantiates Captain Semmes complaints of the Blakely's poor performance (Guerout 1995). The role of auxiliary vessels can be interpreted as Broadwater's (1995) study of the British transport Betsy demonstrates the selection and conversion of a merchant vessel for military transport.

No one has reinterpreted a naval battle by the location of spent munitions, as was done by Richard Fox and Douglas Scott at the battle site on the Little Bighorn (Scott et al. 1989). Don Shomette (1995), however, did hypothesize that the Chesapeake Flotilla's naval engagements in the War of 1812 might be interpreted using such an analysis.

Archaeology is used to both support and contradict the documentary record. A number of studies compared and contrasted a ship's manifest with the artifact assemblages from wrecks. Gawronski (1997) favorably compares artifacts from Dutch shipwrecks with the extensive Dutch East Indies Company records. Faunal remains of sheep bones recovered from the Spanish wreck Trinidad Valencia, however, contradicted the documentary record for the meats used to provision the ship (Martin 1997:1-14). Likewise, faunal remains from Betsy indicate supplementing of ship's Stores with fresh provisions (Broadwater 1995:58-63).

Nevertheless, except for a few well-done works, we have not accomplished a great deal more than produce site reports. Comprehensive analytical reports and articles are lacking. This is especially true where Civil War naval wrecks are concerned, since this seems to be a period from which there has been extensive archaeological survey and recovery of large inventories of artifacts. Collections of Civil War naval artifacts include approximately 16,000 from CSS Neuse, 534 from USS Florida and Cumberland, 220 from CSS Alabama, and over 1,000 from USS Tulip. Other significant collections include those from the CSS Chatahoochee, CSS Jackson, and USS Monitor. These collections offer opportunities for comparison and analytical studies of Civil War cultural material.

Obstacles to Finished Research

There are, of course, many different reasons why this research never reaches final analysis and publication: (1) The lack of funding for completing research is always a problem. (2) Few ever get around to preparing the final publication because of the time involved-a season of excavation can produce several years' work on artifacts and documentation for analysis. (3) It is possible that cultural resource management strategies, which maximize cost-effective surveys and emphasize management in place with minimal disturbance, have produced a significant number of survey reports but not the type of thoughtful and thorough analysis that comes from more extensive archaeological investigations. This is perpetuated by policy among federal agencies towards basic compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which results in completing as little work as possible for the lowest bid. (4) Another factor is that many of the more extensive recoveries of artifacts have, at least in their beginnings, been salvage attempts rather than planned archaeological investigations. (5) As a final factor, we have not established acceptable formats and time-tables for producing final products and their publication.

Potential Solutions

More detailed reporting and a professional dissemination of the results should be required when considering potential archaeological investigations. Thorough and professional archaeological documentation is the key to producing an archaeological record of which future analytical questions can be asked. There is a need to be cautious in issuing authorization to excavate navy shipwrecks if there are not adequate resources to insure quality reporting or if the individuals involved have a poor track record in finishing their reports. There is also the possibility of holding periodic conferences dedicated to research on naval shipwrecks. Then there is the issue of finding funds or other resources to assist with publications. Federal agencies, focused on only minimal compliance with NHPA, may be unwilling to use public money for this purpose unless there is a change in either the legislation or emphasis in cultural resources strategies.

Future Areas for Research on Naval Wrecks

There is a vacuum of careful and detailed archaeological research into navy shipwrecks. Foremost among the areas for future research are the naval shipwrecks from the American Revolution and War of 1812, especially the sea-going capital ships, since as yet none have been studied by archaeologists. The smaller combatants, the sloops and schooners, are important to look at as there is little information on these. Privateers, although not U.S. Navy-owned, played a dominant role in American naval strategy both in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Very little has been done on the French and Spanish naval efforts supporting the American Revolution.

Vessels built between the War of 1812 and the Civil War are of interest. The small swift schooners built for suppressing the slave trade and piracy, which are a significant step above the Jeffersonian gunboats, have a great deal to reveal about developing American ship construction, both from a naval aspect and for understanding development of the clipper ship. Certainly more can also be done with Civil War wrecks, but first some meaningful analysis should be accomplished with extant artifact collections and field investigations of Civil War shipwrecks.

Spanish-American War or World War I shipwrecks have not been studied. Although these and the World War II wrecks are from our most recent past, there is always something new that can be added. The wrecks off the landing beaches of Normandy, for example, could be interpreted as the site of a battlefield. Very few naval aircraft have been archaeologically investigated; certainly much awaits us in this area, particularly in the study of wartime construction, modification, and interpreting battle damage.

Other periods of interest are those of technological change, transition from one class of ship or mode of propulsion to another. The transition from sail to steam and the last of the wooden hulled navy should be considered. As James Delgado, former Maritime Historian for the National Park Service who researched many naval shipwrecks, pointed out, those times are also periods of social change and transition. Social change is one area historians have found rewarding in recent years. It may be that interpretation of artifact assemblages can shed light on class distinctions within the U.S. Navy and identify the presence of different ethnic groups on board.

I originally thought that I would research what meaningful questions are being addressed with naval shipwrecks. Now I see that, for U.S. Navy shipwrecks, not much can be accomplished in the way of comparing ships or assemblages without more published reports and intensive archaeological research.

The Naval Historical Center's immediate focus, for now, is to finish our naval shipwreck inventory and to establish partnerships with the states for assessment and management before initiating extensive research. Inventory, assessment, and management are the foundation for making informed decisions for selecting the research priorities on navy shipwrecks. Once this is accomplished, there will be great potential for more profound investigations into the archaeological record of the navy. A list of potential research questions should be extensive, perhaps virtually endless.


Bound, Mensun (Editor)
The Archaeology of Ships of War. The International Maritime Archaeology Series. Volume I. Anthony Nelson, Ltd. Shropshire, England.

Broadwater, John D.
1995 In the Shadow of Wooden Walls: Naval Transports during the American War of Independence. In The Archaeology of Ships of War, edited by Mensun Bound. The International Maritime Archaeology Series, Vol. 1:58-63. Anthony Nelson, Ltd. Shropshire. England.

Carrell, Toni L. (Editor)
Submerged Cultural Resources Assessment Micronesia. Southwest Cultural Resources Center Professional Papers, Number 36. Sante Fe, New Mexico.

Casson, Lionel, and J. Richard Steffy (Editors)
1991 The Athlit Ram. Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas.

Crisman, Kevin J.
The History and Construction of the United States Schooner Ticonderoga. Eyrie Publications, Alexandria. Virginia.

The Eagle: An American Brig on Lake Champlain During the War of 1812. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland.

Delgado, James P., D. J. Lenihan and L. E. Murphy
1991 The Archeology of the Atomic Bomb: A Submerged Cultural Resources Assessment of the Sunken Fleet of Operation Crossroads at Bikini and Kwajalein Lagoons.. National Parks Service, Sante Fe. New Mexico.

Einarson, Lars
1997 Artefacts from the Kronan (1676): Categories, Preservation and Social Structure. In Artefacts from Wrecks: Dated Assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Induatrial Revolution, edited by Mark Redknap. Oxbow .Monograph 84:209-218. Oxbow Books. Oxford. England.

Fox, Richard A., JR.
1993 Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle: The Little Bighorn Reexamined. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma.

Freschi, Alice
1995 An Ancient Warship in the Waters off Capo Rasocolmo, Sicily. In The Archaeology of Ships of War, edited by Mensun Bound. The International Maritime Archaeology Series. Vol.I:10-12. Anthony Nelson. Ltd., Shropshire, England.

Gawronski, J.
1997 The Hollandia and the Amsterdam: Ships and the Economic Network of the VOC in Amsterdam around 1750. Underwater Archaeology 1997:1-8. Denise C. Lakey, editor. Corpus Christi. Texas.

Glerout, Max
1995 CSS Alabama: Evaluation du Site (1988-1992). In The Archaeology of Ships of War, edited by Mensun Bound. The International Maritime Archaeology Series. Volume I:90-102. Anthony Nelson, Ltd., Shropshire, England.

Hildred, Alex
1997 The Material Culture of the Mary Rose (1545) as a Fighting Vessel: the Uses of Wood. In Artefacts from Wrecks: Dated Assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. edited by Mark Redknap. Oxbow Monograph 84:51-72. Oxbow Books, Oxford, England.

Höchmann, Olaf
1985 Late Roman River Craft from Mainz. Germany. In Local Boats: Fourth International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology. Porto. BAR 438:23-34. Oxford, England.

Hutchinson, Gillian
1995 Henry V's Warship Grace Dieu. In The Archaeology of Ships of War, edited by Mensun Bound. The International Maritime Archaeology Series. Vol.I:22- 25. Anthony Nelson, Ltd., Shropshire. England.

Lenihan, Daniel J. (Editor)
1989 USS Arizona Memorial and Pearl Harbor National Historic Landmark. Southwest Cultural Resources Center Professional Papers No.23. Sante Fe. New Mexico.

Martin, Colin
Ships as Integrated Artifacts: the Archaeological Potential. In ArteFacts from Wrecks: Dated Assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. edited by Mark Redknap. Oxbow Monograph 84:1 14. Oxbow Books. Oxford, Enland.

Orser, Charles E., and Brian M. Fagan
1995 Historical Archaeology. Harper Collins, New York.

Redknap, Mark (Editor)
1997 Artefacts from Wrecks: Dated Assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Oxbow Monograph 84. Oxbow Books, Oxford, England.

Riccardi, Edwardo
1995 An Ancient Warship near Marsala, Sicily. In The Archaeology of Ships of War, edited by Mensun Bound. The International Maritime Archaeology Series. Vol. I:19-21. Anthony Nelson, Ltd., Shropshire, England.

Rule, Margaret, and C. T. C. Dobbs

1995 The Tudor Warship Mary Rose: Aspects of Recent Research. In The Archaeology of Ships of War, edited by Mensun Bound. The International Maritime Archaeology Series. Vol. I:26-29. Anthony Nelson, Ltd., Shropshire. England.

Scott, Douglas D., Richard A. Fox., JR., Melissa A. Connor, and Dick Harmon
1989 Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Oklahoma.

Shomette, Donald
1995 The Chesapeake Flotilla Project Design: A Cultural Resources Study and Management Program for the War of 1812 Fleet in Patuxent River, Maryland. Manuscript on file, Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC.

Vlierman, Karel
1997 The Galley, Galley Utensils and Cooking, Eating, and Drinking Vessels from an Armed "Tjalk" Wrecked on the Zuiderzee in 1673: a Preliminary Report. In Artefacts from Wrecks: Dated Assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution, edited by Mark Redknap. Oxbow Monograph 84:157-156. Oxbow Books, Oxford. England.

25 May 2001