Underwater archaeology chronicles moments in time
The Mercator in 1932, an example of barquentine ships that plied the Great Lakes in the 19th century. One such rig, the Indiana, lies at the bottom of Lake Erie.
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Before dives on known wrecks, divers research the vessels. Located on the grounds of the Great Lakes Historical Society in Vermilion, Ohio, is the Peachman Lake Erie Shipwreck Research Center, a research facility that documents Lake Erie shipwrecks and offers maritime archaeology workshops. It also serves as the headquarters for the MAST program (Maritime Archaeological Survey Team Inc.), which trains divers to survey shipwrecks.
"Most of what we do with MAST are straightforward, two-dimensional site plans," said Carrie Sowden, archaeological director at the research center. "We're looking at how the ship sits on the bottom and mapping all of it out so we know exactly what it looks like sitting on the bottom of the lake."
MAST consists of 200 volunteers devoted to documenting and preserving Lake Erie shipwrecks. They focus on older sites that are more prone to degradation due to frequent visits by divers.
"Nobody's malicious or anything, but once you start having human intervention on a site, it will start to degrade over time," said Sowden. "You know, the little touch here, the sitting down there. We're trying to create a baseline so that we know what is there."
The work conducted at underwater sites requires a specialized degree in aquatic archaeology. Training is focused on the history of ships and seafaring, as opposed to the timelines of peoples and culture.
"What I do is known as 'moment in time' archaeology, in the sense that I'm looking at a shipwreck," said Sowden. "I'm looking at a specific date, whereas land archaeologists tend to look at what are known as stratas. They are looking at years, sometimes centuries of deposition of a culture."
A common way for archaeologists to share their findings is through the display of artifacts. This poses unique challenges when fragile discoveries are immersed in water.
Because of the enormous costs of raising a wreck, groups like MAST are relied upon to document the finds, ensuring these moments in history are not lost.
"Our findings are important to be able to share with people. This is our heritage. This is our history. Not just for the Great Lakes region, but I think it's our national history, too," said Sowden. "To me, the Great Lakes area is home to the raw materials for the industrial revolution."
First Published October 3, 2010 12:00 am