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Caribbean underwater archaeology


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I thought I'd share some pics of some underwater archaeology projects I've led throughout the Caribbean over the years. I used to just focus on wildlife/reefscapes, but the past few years, I've used UW photography mainly as a tool to capture and share research and new discoveries. This gallery gives a pretty good idea of some of the methods we've used and things we've found. When photographing our research, I always like to keep things simple. It can get very crowded on an underwater archaeological site, with divers, bubbles, fins, sediment everywhere. I like to focus on one specific element/person/discovery in my photos, which I think helps to tell the story.

On St. Eustatius, I've worked on a specific 18th-century shipwreck site for 3 years, during which time we documented the site in detail and recovered many artifacts that were in danger of getting destroyed during future hurricanes. In addition, the historic roadstead has largely been mapped, in the process finding over 50 historic anchors, numerous cannons, and several other shipwreck sites.

On Bonaire, the main focus has been the study of the anchorages at the salt pans in the south. There was a significant terrestrial component to it, as most of you who have been to Bonaire will know, such as the cabins of the enslaved salt workers, obelisks and bollards, and several other ruins. Underwater, we've focused on three different methodologies: surveying the shallow areas by snorkeling, documenting anything on the dropoff on SCUBA, and mapping the deeper areas down to 400 ft with an ROV. Recent research on Bonaire has focused on documenting a large shipwreck site on the east coast in the Spelonk area.

In Turks & Caicos, several shipwreck sites have thus far been investigated. We have just started the investigation of the historic roadstead of Salt Cay, and are getting a better insight into historic shipping activities around the island.

As I'm sure you can imagine, the actual underwater research is just a small component of a project. Artifact conservation, data processing, archival research, report writing, and public outreach all take up a considerable amount of time. But since this is an underwater photography forum, the pictures will focus on the underwater part of the research.

All images were taken by myself. Here we go:

 

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We often try to gather information without even disturbing the sea floor. Here, we are using a metal detector to investigate whether there are any metal components from a shipwreck present in the sea floor. By mapping these signatures, we can get a very good idea of the size and extent of a site, without ever even excavating.

 

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We found many glass bottles on our shipwreck site on St. Eustatius. They would have held wine or sometimes a different liquid. They are very fragile and were therefore recovered, underwent conservation treatment, and are now on display.

 

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One of our students after just finding this beautiful 18th-century ceramic plate. The image on the plate represents a saint, but we are still not sure who exactly is depicted.

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The distribution of lost anchors around St. Eustatius has helped us to determine the extent of the historic anchorage.

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Some shallow sites around the island contain lots of cannons. They are a prime indicator of a shipwreck site.

 

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This Spanish olive jar is the largest artifact we have recovered to date. It took several months of conservation treatment before it was in a stable condition. It is currently on display.

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An important part of the study of the anchorages on Bonaire has been to map archaeological remains along the dropoff. This anchor was found to the north of the Red Slave dive site.

 

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We've been studying this wooden wreck in the Turks & Caicos Islands quite intensively. It is quite rare to find this much wood on a shipwreck site in the Caribbean; normally wood is destroyed within years by teredo worms. The fact that this wreck site is still relatively intact is probably because it has been exposed during a recent storm. We think it might be a salt ship from the 1850s, but need to conduct more research next year to confirm this.

 

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One of the most spectacular historic shipwreck sites in the Caribbean is that of the HMS Endymion, a British fifth rate man-of-war that wrecked on an uncharted reef in the Turks Islands in 1790. We've been doing lots of archival research and are piecing together important information regarding the events that surround the wrecking.

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Fascinating, thanks for sharing these.
Very impressive to come across artefacts lying like this on the seafloor, visible rather than buried in layers and layers of sediment... 
Is this due to local conditions?

And where is the 18th-century ceramic plate from? Seen like this, it looks a little similar to some Chinese productions of the time.
cheers
ben

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Fantastic! Thanks for sharing these.

If you have time, would you like to write a piece on diving in Statia? Not many people do it and, as we can see from your pics, it's an interesting place. Even above water, it's a fascinating island with history all around. 

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Thanks everyone!

@bghazzal Good questions! The shipwreck site and most of its associated artifacts was exposed during hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. I had dived in this area many times before, but after the hurricane, about 5 feet of sea floor was just removed and the site was exposed, that's why we are able to conduct research without excavating. The plate is of a type called delftware. It was made it the Netherlands, but like you said, it looks just like Chinese porcelain. This was a cheap Dutch alternative to the more expensive and higher-quality Chinese ceramics.

 

@Davide DB You'd have a lot of fun with rebreather/scooter there. Along the volcano in the south, we have some very steep and deep walls, which have not been explored past 60 meters. Yes, all archaeological remains are protected by law on the Dutch BES islands (Bonaire, St. Eustatius, Saba). They have kind of a double layer of legal protection, both through local ordinances from the national parks, but also through Dutch national law. However, legislation is one thing, enforcement is another. There have been instances in recent times where people have taken things they shouldn't have, but it's definitely not as bad as it used to be. Back when diving tourism was emerging, St. Eustatius was actually advertised as an underwater treasure hunting destination. If you ever come across the Skin Diver magazine issue of April 1986, it has an article dedicated to it. Back then, divers brought up hundreds of artifacts to take home. That was a very different time... We always work with local heritage and national parks organizations, and of course only under government permits.

 

@TimG I'd love to! I'll put some text together next week with some nice photos, and get back to you on that.

 

 

Edited by RuudStelten
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  • Thanks for your support!!

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