Archaeological Watercraft: A Review and Critical Analysis of the Practice
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Vestiges of humankind’s long-term interaction with the earth’s rivers, lakes, oceans and seas lie beneath water, sand, soils and sediments in the form of archaeological waterlogged wooden ships and boats. These quintessential maritime artifacts, and the connections formed between humans and watercraft create an extensive artifact biography revealing a host of physical and metaphysical meanings. Over a span of the last nine millennium watercraft have acted as containers, vessels, a means of conveyance, a bridge, a home, a factory, a prison, a fortress or a life boat. They are emblematic of individuals and nations. Deep seated in many cultural beliefs, they are integral aspects of birth or renewal, and often a critical component for reaching the afterlife. All of these factors motivate individuals to save archaeological watercraft when discovered in the course of academic search and survey, or a civil/commercial excavation. Although attempts by professional conservators to stabilize waterlogged wooden watercraft first occurred in the early 1860s with the finds from Nydam Bog (Denmark), there was little change in methodological and philosophical approaches from then until after World War II. Following the war, a combination of new products, dissatisfaction with previously tried methods, and a shift in attitudes towards preserving representations of the past, ushered in a new era in the conservation of antiquities, and in particular watercraft. Over the last 60 years, incremental advancements have taken place concerning the conservation techniques applied to waterlogged archaeological wood and wooden structures. Investigations that focused primarily on methods that maintained the dimensional stabilization of the object are now beginning to share considerably more time with inquiries about the state of artifacts once stabilized and in storage or on display. The archaeological remains of one watercraft, La Belle discovered in the shallow waters of Matagorda Bay, Texas in 1995 provides a case study in this dissertation to address some of the issues surrounding the conservation of waterlogged ships and boats.
Fix, Peter Douglas (2015). Archaeological Watercraft: A Review and Critical Analysis of the Practice. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from