Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC) Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) was founded in 1996 due to an emerging need for the Department of the Navy (DoN) to study and preserve its submerged cultural resources. Today, UAB's mission is to manage, research, conserve, and interpret the Navy's collection of sunken and terrestrial military craft, which includes over 2,500 shipwrecks and 15,000 aircraft wrecks distributed across the globe and which date from the American Revolution to the beginnings of the nuclear age. The Navy's sunken and terrestrial military craft are preserved and protected as they illustrate pivotal events in our nation's history, may contain environmental or public safety hazards such as oil or unexploded ordnance, and, most importantly, are often the final resting places of sailors who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service of the nation.
In executing its mission, the UAB serves four main functions:
1) HISTORIC PRESERVATION, POLICY DEVELOPMENT, CULTURAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT
Resource management involves implementing an overall cultural heritage policy, ensuring the Navy remains in compliance with federal laws and regulations, forming a military craft wreck inventory, developing individual site management plans, coordinating violation enforcement, coordinating human remains issues, and extensive collaboration with federal, state, local agencies, international counterparts, the non-profit sector, the private sector and the public.
As stewards of the Navy’s wreck sites, the UAB maintains a geographic information system (GIS) and a database of over 2,500 ship and 15,000 aircraft wrecks distributed world-wide, whether submerged or on land. The Navy’s ship and aircraft wrecks represent a fragile collection of non-renewable resources that, in addition to their historical value, are often considered war graves, may contain unexploded ordnance, state secrets, or environmental hazards. To ensure preservation of these sites, the UAB develops, coordinates, reviews, and implements related policy.
The Navy's policy towards these wreck sites is to leave them undisturbed, thereby encouraging in situ preservation.
- U.S. Navy sunken and terrestrial military craft, as well as foreign sunken military craft in U.S. waters, remain government property regardless of their location or the passage of time, and are afforded further protection from unauthorized disturbance under the Sunken Military Craft Act (SMCA).
- Sites that have reached chemical and physical equilibrium with their immediate environment are subject to a substantially reduced deterioration rate. If disturbed, this deterioration rate accelerates and any recovered artifacts must undergo immediate conservation and long-term monitoring.
While NHHC prefers non-intrusive, in situ research on sunken and terrestrial military craft, it recognizes that disturbance and/or artifact recovery may be justified or become necessary. Therefore, NHHC established a permitting program in May 2000 by 32 CFR 767 to allow for controlled site disturbance and, in 2015, revised that program pursuant to the SMCA.
2) ARCHAEOLOGICAL & HISTORICAL RESEARCH
The overall research objective of UAB is to interpret the Navy's experience by applying the science of archaeology on the Navy's submerged cultural resources. UAB conducts scientific research, data analysis, surveys, and excavations of ship and aircraft wrecks under management of the Navy, spanning the entire history of the United States. NHHC undertakes archaeological research as a lead agency, as a collaborator, as a guide, and as a monitor and permit-issuer in the case of external archaeological surveys and/or actions that disturb sunken and terrstrial military craft under Navy's jurisdiction. Through undertaking archaeological research, as well as encouraging external collaborations, the UAB has contributed to the understanding of the Navy's and the nation's underwater cultural heritage.
3) CONSERVATION & CURATION
Another section of the UAB is the NHHC Archaeology & Conservation Laboratory (ACL), located on the Washington Navy Yard. It serves as the Navy's center of expertise on the conservation, treatment, and analysis of artifacts originating from sunken military craft. Conservation is intrinsically tied to archaeological research as artifacts recovered from an underwater environment require some form of conservation and a proper curation environment to remain in a stable condition.
The laboratory serves as a curation space for over 27,000 artifacts and provides public access to the collection for research and analysis. Additionally, the lab manages an artifact loan program, of nearly 7,400 artifacts, which allows for Navy-owned artifacts from wreck sites to be curated and displayed under the auspices of NHHC at qualified facilities nationally and internationally for the purposes of public education and academic research.
4) PUBLIC OUTREACH AND EDUCATION
Outreach and education is a fundamental mission component of NHHC as it helps promote the Navy’s heritage and preserve its sunken and terrestrial military craft from disturbance. The UAB disseminates information to the U.S. Navy, general public, and academia via scientific and popular publications, lectures, the NHHC website, social media outlets, the artifact loan program, an active internship program, underwater archaeological exhibits, in-person visits and tours, and support of United States Naval Academy (USNA) midshipmen and student research.