Digital Library

Large and Small Boats: Reflections from Nautical Archaeology

Juan David Sarmiento Rodríguez & Jesús Alberto Aldana Mendoza

Around a boat, regardless of its characteristics, a large number of questions can be asked: what materials were used for its construction? What type of construction was necessary to build it? Who built it? Where did it come from? What can it be used for? What is its temporality? How was it lost? Among many others. Nautical archaeology, therefore, has an important task to develop since around all the bodies of water in the world it is possible to find all kinds of ships used years, decades, centuries and even millennia ago. For this case, the present reflection starts from the different approaches that may exist when interpreting a large ship (for example, a ship of the line destined for war) or a vessel of a much smaller size (such as a canoe for fishing).

Beyond the obvious difference that exists in the sizes of the ships, the starting point is those questions that can be answered about the historical societies that inhabited a certain territory, based on the remains that were once lost and are interpreted today by maritime, underwater and nautical archaeology. Therefore, both cases are framed in the analytical interpretations of these disciplines, however, the main difference that can be discussed in this space is concerning the “scales”. Of course there are some points in common, since regardless of the size of the ship for both cases it is intended to understand, for example: the phases corresponding to shipbuilding and its technical complexes, their uses while they were functional elements, technological evolutions that they experienced, among others.

Based on the aforementioned, the main parallel to be established lies in that differentiation that may exist between “industrial shipbuilding” and “artisanal shipbuilding” (to name them in some way). In this order of ideas, in the case of the first it is possible to point out that the questions that arise are established within the framework of a spatial scale linked to transits of long trajectories of thousands of kilometers (ships used to connect continents or oceans). The second, for its part, in most cases raises issues more related to transit at a local scale (connecting islands, bays or regional territories).

On the other hand, large vessels offer a very particular level of analytical detail, insofar as it is possible to ask them even the name by which they were called, instead, in smaller vessels this would be extremely complicated, which generates that the questions that are make to them must go by another line. Thus, the questions that arise from industrial shipbuilding have the ability to ask not only “what type of ship is it?”, but also “which is it specifically?”, instead, from artisanal shipbuilding it would be possible to question “what constructive style does the boat have?” or “to which community did this possibly belong to?”

Now, it is clear that one of the main interpretative differences that exist are subject to the availability of information sources. On one hand, given the complex infrastructure that a large interoceanic ship required, the archaeological evidence that is preserved over time may be greater and very diverse. In the case of a canoe, for example, its size limits the number of artifacts that can be found in a certain context (all subject, of course, to the site formation processes). On the other hand, for large ships, the availability of written historical documents allows a greater number of sources to be consulted to fully understand the elements, something that is very difficult for small ships (without reject the possibility that this happens).

In the same way, it is possible to point out that in the larger ships the transit of the vessel (which can become interoceanic) begins to pose a difficulty in the interpretation of materiality, since its origin can be very diverse (wood from certain region, built in a given shipyard, international construction standards, intercontinental cargo and shipwrecked in a completely isolated space). Rather those of smaller size could correspond to a whole set of elements that can come, in most cases, from the same cultural area (on a regional scale).

Consequently, it is one thing to ask about national shipbuilding (for example, the Spanish one, which had shipyards in various parts of the globe) and it is quite another to ask about a local construction (in which its diversity varies in the autochthonous particularities of a certain space). Likewise, question about the number of people who were involved in the construction of the boat: in the case of the larger ones, there was generally a whole structure of previously trained and specialized workers in the different tasks that are required for said construction, unlike the smaller ones, in which a small number of people worked on the total construction of the boat.

In short, it is clear that despite the fact that both cases are framed in a nautical archaeology, there are a great number of differences in their investigative approaches that are not limited only to their respective sizes (only some were named here to illustrate). In line with the above, many of the questions depend directly on the amount and availability of naval archaeological evidence, as well as the existence or absence of historical or oral sources of information. Therefore, the advantages and disadvantages are very diverse, however, it is the interpretive frameworks of nautical archaeology that will allow all questions to be answered and then there is a comprehensive understanding of the contexts. Allowing that the disparity between one and the other does not fall in terms of “better or worse” or “easy or difficult”, but simply in two “different” scenarios, very complex, but possible and important to understand.

The Cultural Affiliation of Shipwrecks

Identity is a central in archaeology. Archaeologists associate the concept of identity with human beings as it refers to age, gender, ethnicity, religion and status. It can either describes individual or group identity and one can have more than one.

However, how can archaeologists articulate the notion of identity when dealing with architectural remains? When applied to a shipwreck, the notion of identity can be applied to the humans and artefacts on board, to the humans and countries involved in its construction and the architectural features.

A first definition for identity could refer to the humans on board. The use of material culture to determine the ethnicity of those aboard the vessel is common in the study of shipwrecks, especially for the antique ones as artefacts are often the only remains left. The identification of cargo and daily life artifacts can lead to the identification of trade networks but also to the ethnic identification of some people on board.

However, studies on onboard people identity do not always match the nationality of a ship itself. People were mobile, and their presence on board only reflects only a small period of time in the ship’s history, often the last trip. Crews were often multi-ethnic, and do not necessarily reflect the nationality of the ship. The same problem is encountered with the cargo. The origins of the artifact found on a wreck can improve our understanding of trade networks, but they can be independent from the ship itself.

Regarding the ship itself, the flag or ownership under which the ship once sailed could be seen as a good way to identify the nationality of the ship, but only when historical records are available. One should, however, keep in mind that ships could be bought from another country or that ships can be captured and sail under new ownership.

The location of the shipyard can be a good indication of a ship’s nationality, but it is not always available through historical records. Moreover, knowing where the ship was built does not always indicate who built the ship, and it cannot exclude the potential presence of foreign shipwrights building who might have constructed it on commission. Through analysis of the wood, it is also possible to pinpoint a general origin from the timbers used but again, timbers traveled across territories.

Finally, the shipwreck itself can have its identity associated with its architectural features. For example, studies led on ship build in the Iberian Peninsula during the 15-16th century show that they share similar construction features. Other shipbuilding traditions can share common features or common measurement system that can provide archaeologists with some indications of the ship’s origins.


Whether it is the association of the ship to a specific type, function, region, tradition or, in some case, its name and country of origin, these associations are important for the discipline of nautical archaeology. The possibilities are numerous, and they all reflect different levels of the identity in a ship. It is part of the archaeologist role to understand their ship identity through all the evidence found on the shipwreck site!

Archaeology and Change

Howard Zinn said that it is not possible to be neutral on a moving train. Archaeologists agree that there is no such a thing as a politically neutral archaeology, or an objective archaeology. All narratives depend on viewpoints and since the late 20th century archaeology is changing into a more cosmopolitan and inclusive discipline.

While middle classes shrink in many western democracies, they are growing in other parts of the planet, enlarging the public that consumes cultural products and that is interested in exploring what can be known about the past that might help them better understand the present.

The last half century in the west was marked by a resurgence of ideologies of inequality that defend the erosion of the democratic state and propose to replace it with a small and cheap bureaucracy, tasked with facilitating international commerce. In this context the roles of culture and knowledge that cannot be monetized in the short term have been despised, together with the western humanistic ideals.

More than ever, the social value of archaeology is a central concern of archaeology, which in many countries faces a marked lack of investment, together with free museums, public orchestras, tax funded scientific production, public gardens, national parks, or environmental protection agencies.

The misery and exploitation imposed on the poorer classes, and the destruction of the environment associated with laissez faire economics have encouraged archaeologists – and perhaps especially maritime archaeologists – to take a look at the landscapes and artifacts produced by European societies in the turns of the last three centuries: the Industrial Revolution of the 1780s, with the development of steam navigation, the European colonial expansion in the 1880s, and the fall of the Soviet Empire in the 1980s were periods of deregulated capitalism, empowerment of small wealthy classes, and erosion of state power.

These three periods brought about the importance of philosophy and especially Humanism. So here the relevance of the humanist emerges, the people who reflect on the daily life and the problems of the social world. Those who decide to act to transform it. And in such periods the role of scientists and intellectuals becomes clearer, the tools and means they possess allow them to think of the world from a different perspective, even though often from comfortable positions. It is here that Noam Chomsky’s words apply, when he points out that “Intellectuals are typically privileged; privilege yields opportunity, and opportunity confers responsibilities. An individual then has choices.” And this choice turns out to be fundamental for archaeologists. We must ask ourselves whether we have a responsibility to the world around us?

Those parallels observed in different periods and currently repeated, against different technological backgrounds, but with more than similar principles (although on a larger scale), are a clear call to what archeology can contribute to the world.

With this perspective, archeology can, and perhaps should, deconstruct many of the ideas that we have historically given as certain, as absolute truths. Thoughts that are firmly established in the minds of most people and that scientists and intellectuals must subject to meticulous questioning.

The wide temporal scale of reflection that archaeologists typically possess when analyzing social change call for the generating transformative discourses addressing the conditions under which the most vulnerable inhabit.

People who have historically been affected by principles that still guide modern societies, based on power, greed, alienation, and selfishness should deserve our attention. Perhaps by studying inequality we can promote visions of society governed by respect, sympathy, solidarity, and compassion.

Even though this approach may sound naive, it is important to remember that naïve approaches drove the most important changes in the history of humanity, the ones that pointed towards social justice. They were all adopted gradually, but they arrived never to leave.

One of the first tasks that we must set ourselves as archaeologists is the deconstruction of ourselves as researchers, scientists, intellectuals, and humanists. Rethinking what our discipline, focused on our specific case towards the study of the historical relationship of human beings with bodies of water, can do for the world and those who inhabit it.

Surely the first step is social criticism, which is achieved when we guarantee that our past is not forgotten, since any event of the present has deep roots in the past. It is there where memory is born, a collective memory.

In our view, archeology has a tremendous job in preventing amnesia, not only about events of millennia ago, but also about recent ones. Hence the importance of a deep analysis of the 20th century and its direct influence on the present.

Without a clear reflection on the role of archeology in the world, perhaps it would not be fair to expect it to be practiced only to satisfy our curiosity about the ancient. Our field of study (a maritime, underwater, and/or nautical archeology) must aim towards the same objectives as the other social sciences: to change the complex world in which we live.

Seven Months!

This web page started seven months ago.  We have now over 300 pages uploaded and we are working on as many more.  Certainly due to the fact that we are still far from having uploaded 20% of the intended content, so far we have received about 10 visits per day.

Yesterday’s NADL weekly meeting: Kyle, Filipe, Ricardo, Patricia, and Mahesh. Fravio Calippo was not in the frame when we made this screen capture.

We just hope that the team – now with approximately 20 contributors – will keep growing and that this page establishes itself as a community, as opposed to a hierarchy, and becomes a useful source of information in maritime archaeology and a resource in the fight against treasure hunting.

Our focus is now on making navigation easy and clear, allowing for quick searches and providing a good understanding of the page’s architecture.

As this page started as, and is still an experiment for computer science, visualization, and maritime archaeology students, we expect it to change in time and improve as it grows.

Sharing primary data before the work is over

Some archaeologists live in fear that their excavations might be published by somebody else, should their colleagues come across their primary data. Most archaeologists, however, don’t even publish their own excavations. It is difficult to imagine why anybody, unwilling or incapable of publishing their own work, would publish a colleague’s excavation.

Other archaeologists live in fear of being caught making a mistake. Once a colleague told me that he did not want to share his primary data – even after the work was over – because there might be mistakes and he did not want his colleagues to find them. This attitude reflects an understanding of archaeology as a competitive discipline in which our colleagues are our adversaries. It is difficult to imagine what archaeologists can compete for. Certainly not for power, or money, or glory. Are we even ranked? But the point is that if we are competing it is impossible to build a community engaged in the pursuit of a better understanding of the past. Competition is the opposite of community.

Sharing primary data as we gather it allows us to get early peer reviews from our colleagues. If there are mistakes in our data or methodology, we can correct them early and thank our colleagues for their constructive input. Making mistakes is not a crime. I know of a reputed scholar, known for his especially harsh criticism of most of his colleagues, that once sent an article for peer review with two orthographic mistakes in the title alone.

Although an obnoxious critique of our work can be annoying, these situations are largely compensated by the constructive input of our colleagues. Moreover, being criticized is unavoidable. How many times have we heard people attacking ideas that they don’t understand, or commenting on colleagues’ work from hearsay, without having read it? Critiques are a part of any adult life. And idiotic critiques are harmless because archaeology is a small field and we all know everybody.

Sharing primary data is the basis for any serious discipline. Our results should be supported by data. And sharing partial results should be a generalized practice. All our works will need to be reanalyzed in a few years. Archaeology is an iterative discipline.

Archaeology is public or it is nothing

NADL Team in the ShipLAB: Mahesh Naidu, Alicia Kincaid, Rick Futruta, Naveed Khimani, and Kyle Pence. Fall 2019.

Social media is making archaeology public and helping archaeologists to share their discoveries and ideas to a wider than ever public. This trend is creating a public for archaeology that is already the best ally of the cultural heritage.

The social value of archaeology lies on its contribution to the public understanding of the world. As most kids around the world are in school today – something that never happened before – we expect to see, in a near future,  the rise of diverse interpretations of archaeological data, and the development of more diverse narratives about our common past.

The internet has been an exceptional tool for the democratization of knowledge and it is great to see that as the older archaeologists retire, a new group of young archaeologists is emerging with a new paradigm, less secretive, less complicated, less competitive, and more engaged politically. Teams are becoming increasingly more diverse, and archaeology is moving away from the ivory tower paradigm – or dungeon, as a colleague of mine likes to say – and being replaced by a much more serious and creative multidisciplinary discipline that is both more intelligent, and much more fun. This is even true for the cultural resource management world. Organizations like the Maritime Archaeology Trust (UK) are working hard to share their discoveries online in ever more creative ways, and companies like ASI (Canada) are making all their reports available online.

At Texas A&M University we are celebrating this paradigm change and trying to put all our data online in creative and hopefully fun ways, with the skills and creativity of computer science and visualization students.

Standardizing the publication of wooden hull structures

As we work on our shipbuilding databases it becomes increasing evident that we must standardize the description of wooden hull structures, in the same way biologists standardized the description of insects.

There are many reasons why primary data and excavation reports are not accessible to the general public, but the most important are obvious and easy to address.

Many wooden remains of ancient ships are only partially published and some are not published at all. Some archaeologists are notoriously slow  in publishing their results, others are implausibly secretive, and most don’t share their primary data. And this makes it very difficult to implement comparative studies.

J. Richard Steffy argued already in the 1990s that computers were opening a wide range of avenues of research in the study of wooden shipbuilding. Twenty-five years later, we are renewing his plea for nautical archaeologists to adopt our proposed methodology – Castro, F., Bendig, C., Bérubé, M., Borrero, R., Budsberg, N., Dostal, C., Monteiro, A., Smith, C., Torres, R., and Yamafune, K., 2018. “Recording, Publishing, and Reconstructing Wooden Shipwrecks” Journal of Maritime Archaeology, 13.1: 55-66 – or to propose better ones.