Underwater archaeologists (Rule 22)

The results of archaeological work or investigation will outweigh the ‘damage’ to the site that intervention, and in particular excavation, entails if it is professionally and competently carried out. In order to minimise the damage by and maximise the benefit from intervention (such as knowledge about the past) those involved must possess the necessary knowledge, skills, training and understanding to ensure that their actions do not endanger this precious record. They must be appropriately qualified and competent to undertake the work planned.


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Defining competence and qualification


Competence can be defined as being in adequate possession of the required skills, knowledge, qualifications and capacity to undertake the task at hand.

Qualification can be defined as ‘a quality, ability or accomplishment that fits a person for some function’ or ‘that makes a person suitable (or competent) for a particular position or task’. Qualification is often based on a formal training process with a measurable outcome, such as a university degree, for example.

The key words are skills, knowledge, capacity, ability and formal training.

From these definitions it is clear that competence and qualification are closely linked and that a person’s qualifications contribute to the competence in the activities undertaken. However, it is important to remember that these are separate concepts. Being qualified in a field does not guarantee that a person is also competent to carry out a specific task. The two concepts should therefore always be judged separately.
The qualified underwater archaeologist should have scientific competence appropriate to the project.

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Qualifications for underwater archaeologists


The key requirement of Rule 22 is that interventions on underwater heritage should be directed, controlled and overseen by a qualified and competent underwater archaeologist.

Archaeology is a scientific discipline concerned with reconstructing past human life and culture from the material remains that survive. In the case of underwater archaeology, the focus of study is the long human relationship with the sea and other water environments. Archaeologists professionally quest for traces of the human past through the investigation, recording and interpretation of cultural heritage. Their conception of what archaeology means and requires is very different to the perception amongst many divers, particularly those with an interest in the commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage. There is a risk that by paying lip service to archaeology, and drawing an odd rough site plan, some national authorities might be persuaded that a proposed commercial intervention in an underwater heritage site is a legitimate archaeological excavation. However, the practice of archaeology is not easily picked up to meet permitting or licensing requirements.

Archaeology is a professional discipline with:

  • a strong theoretical base;
  • a set of investigative techniques; and 
  • a common, established set of guiding principles.

All three can only be mastered through thorough training, including practical experience, and it is this training and the qualifications that result from it that ensure that the archaeological record is not compromised by an intervention.

To be deemed qualified and competent an archaeologist must therefore possess a university degree in archaeology and demonstrate:

  • thorough understanding of the way in which scientific knowledge is produced;
  • ability in a range of field techniques from pre-disturbance surveys to complex excavations;
  • training in artefact recovery;
  • familiarity with at the least basic artefact handling and conservation techniques;
  • skills in research and laboratory analysis; and 
  • ability and commitment to report and publish the detailed results of investigations and analysis.

All these abilities and competences need to be learned through patient application, time and effort.

Rule 22 and Rule 23 of the Annex imply that just as competence and qualifications are non-negotiable and expected of members of any professional field, from medicine to engineering, they are just as applicable and important to the practice of underwater archaeology.

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Exemple of a definition of a maritime archaeologist


Requirements for determining qualification will vary from place to place, as will rules governing the conduct of archaeological excavations. For example, the code of ethics of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (AIMA) defines a maritime archaeologist as someone:

  • holding an ‘honours or other post-graduate degree in Maritime Archaeology or in another area of Archaeology with a major in Maritime Archaeology’; or
  •  who has ‘gained recognition by Australian State, Commonwealth or New Zealand governments as a maritime archaeologist plus a minimum of two and a half years of full time professional experience applying the theories, methods and practices of Maritime Archaeology to the identification, evaluation, documentation or treatment of maritime archaeological sites in Australasia (one year experience in maritime archaeology must be under supervision of a maritime archaeologist); and products and activities that demonstrate the successful application of acquired proficiencies to the practice of maritime archaeological preservation’.
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Respecting ethics

Most archaeologists work under local, national or internationally accepted codes of practice and ethics. As members of a range of professional bodies, archaeologists are required to abide by professional standards and codes of conduct. Their work will be subject to peer review and they can be disciplined and exposed if they act in contravention of professional ethics. Bodies such as the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists (ASAPA) in South Africa, the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) in the United Kingdom, or the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (AIMA), are important instruments in setting and maintaining national standards in archaeological qualification and competence. Membership of such a body will signify a certain level of qualification and competence in an archaeologist.

The importance of ethics:

It is training and qualifications, underpinned by a professional commitment to ensuring that interventions are carried out to the highest professional and ethical standards that sets archaeologists apart from treasure hunters and those with an interest in underwater cultural heritage which is at odds with its proper investigation and conservation.

Archaeologists have an ethical obligation to the archaeological record and to society. This is a very important part of what makes an archaeologist – just as important as the technical skills needed to competently carry out an archaeological investigation. It is what separates archaeologists from treasure hunters and others that only claim to do archaeology.

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Determining qualification


Whether an archaeologist is deemed to be qualified will be determined by the requirements of the competent authority in whose territory the archaeological work takes place. In assessing competence, competent authorities with little experience in this matter may seek advice from professional organizations. Most countries will demand certain qualifications and set minimum standards, but in general terms what constitutes archaeological qualification and competence is likely to include at least:

  • A degree in archaeology or similar qualification recognized by the country in which the archaeologist is working;
  • Practical experience in a chosen field/area of speciality;
  • Demonstrated research abilities; and
  • Knowledge of the specific type of site or archaeological period being investigated.

Although there will be national and even local differences in definitions and minimum standards, what constitutes acceptable archaeological qualifications and competence will in essence generally be, or should strive to be, underpinned by common archaeological principles and ethics of the sort set out in the Rules.

Practical advise

In assessing proposals for an archaeological intervention or for the composition of a team, it is important to be aware that – as in any other discipline – stated qualifications and competences are not necessarily what they seem.

  • Check qualifications and competences:
    • Formal qualifications, such as degrees, diving and other licences are easily checked with the issuing institution;
    • Competence profiles and ethics are indicated by membership of professional organizations whose profile and track-record can also easily be checked;
  • Independent peer review is a further, powerful instrument; Professional organizations and the Non-Governmental Organization ICOMOS can assist in identifying suitable reviewers.
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Scientific competence appropriate to the project


Being qualified does not mean that an individual archaeologist is necessarily competent for a particular project. The person may be highly qualified, but a particular site or specific area of underwater investigation may be outside or beyond individual abilities.

To be scientifically competent to undertake or direct an intervention on an underwater heritage site, an underwater archaeologist must be fully acquainted with the subject of the investigation before work begins. The archaeologist must also be honest enough to leave alone those sites which are beyond competence or experience.

The question of individual archaeological competence is a common thread in most recognized archaeological standards and codes of professional practice, and this should guide archaeologists in remaining within their own competence. The European Association of Archaeologists’ Code of Practice (1997) states, for example, that no archaeologist should undertake a project for which the person is not competent – i.e. adequately trained and prepared. The Code of Conduct of the UK Institute for Archaeologists (IfA 1985, as revised in 2008) contains a similar clause.

The competent authority involved, whether local, federal or national has a responsibility in this regard. In considering an application for an intervention it must not only ensure that the archaeologist is qualified, but must also assess competence. This can be done through the project design process and peer review of the application.

Questions that can be asked of an archaeologist to assess competence include:

  • Does the archaeologist have the necessary historical background for the site/s proposed to be investigated? If the intention is to investigate a British naval vessel of the mid-18th century, for example, has  the period been researched and is the historical context of the site understood?
  • Has consideration been given to other similar archaeological interventions? Have the authorities in the field been consulted and have the results of parallel studies been examined?
  • Have not only the ‘mechanical skills’ of archaeology been acquired– i.e. the know how to properly excavate, record and report the site – but also a suitable working knowledge of the contemporary maritime technologies  likely to be encountered on the site, which will allow an interpretation of the material?
  • Continuing on from the above, will s/he be able to recognize and interpret the artefacts encountered?
  • Does s/he have access to and knowledge of specialized authorities in the field? A wide range of specialities are likely to be associated with any underwater heritage site and an individual archaeologist cannot be expected to be the master of them all. However, it must be  demonstrated that one knows who or where to go to for answers.
  • What previous, practical archaeological experience is possessed? 
  • To what extent has the archaeologist kept abreast of developments in knowledge, methods and technology in the chosen maritime archaeological specialisation?

To be assessed as competent, an archaeologist wishing to undertake or direct a project must thus be well-versed and experienced in key excavation issues, must demonstrate good practical archaeological knowledge and skills and must be in a position to draw on appropriate specialists as needed.

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Regular presence of a qualified archaeologist

Rule 22 requires that work takes place ‘under the direction and control of, and in the regular presence of, a qualified underwater archaeologist with scientific competence appropriate to the project’.

Historically, the involvement of archaeologists in many projects directed at underwater heritage had been limited. This has had much to do with a lack of suitably qualified professionals in many countries, and has meant that much work directed at underwater heritage has been only marginally archaeological. Even where project archaeologists did exist, they were often not maritime archaeologists, could generally not dive and could therefore not actually visit the sites being investigated. Their input and control was thus always limited. As a result, much of the artefact material recovered lacks proper provenance and is today of only limited archaeological and historical value. A lack of proper record-keeping and limited compliance with the professional or ethical requirement to publish has been the result, and the quality and quantity of what is known today from the many wreck investigations led by non-archaeologists is alarmingly limited. This is of course not exclusively the case. There are some shining examples of projects carried out to a very high standard by individuals who have not been trained as professional archaeologists.

  • Development of new standards:

The growing body of professional, cademically qualified underwater archaeologists around the world has gradually seen this situation change. A shift in legislation and policy around the world, given impetus by first the ICOMOS Charter on the Protection and Management of Underwater Cultural Heritage (1996) and the Annex to the 2001 Convention, has seen more and more countries rightly siding with the credentialed professionals for close overall supervision, not oceanographers and not treasure hunters.

Many competent authorities are now rightly insisting in-line with the Annex that interventions in underwater heritage must take place under the direction, control and regular presence of a suitably qualified archaeologist. Just as the refereeing of an important national or international sporting event would not be put in the hands of someone lacking the necessary qualifications, accreditation and experience, so there is no reason why it should be considered acceptable that the responsibility for the investigation of the fragile, common underwater heritage should be entrusted to an unqualified non-professional.

Some countries require the archaeologist to be present all the time. In others this is not a requirement, as long as regular site visits take place during fieldwork and the archaeologist and field team – whether professional or avocational – are in regular contact. With increasing professional capacity and more and more suitably qualified and competent archaeologists available worldwide, the project director should always be present on site unless there is a significant reason for this absence. 

The bottom line is that the responsibility for the intervention and its results lies with the project director. The archaeologist thus controls the work being executed. He or she must be on site to ensure that the project is undertaken to the appropriate standard and according to the agreed project design.

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