Digital Maritime Sights

Delia Ní Chíobhaín Enqvist, Linnaeus University

Keywords: digital maritime archaeology, visualisation, contract archaeology, underwater documentation.

This research paper considers the use of digital visualisations for knowledge production and communication of maritime heritage located underwater, with a focus on the contract sector. The aim is to understand the use of digital visualisations for knowledge production and communication of maritime archaeology located underwater. This aim is met through a study informed by theoretical perspectives from the fields of maritime and terrestrial archaeology, digital archaeology, and heritage studies.

The case study is the contract maritime archaeology sector in Scandinavia. It draws on discourse analysis and thematic analysis methodologies for the analysis of material resulting from interviews with contract maritime archaeologists working in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. This approach is applied to understand how digital and 3D technologies are used for knowledge production and communication. The results are intended to further the understanding of how these tools impact the contract sector and to provide a basis for future research.

The goals of contract archaeology in Sweden place emphasis on creating a record of scientific archaeological activities on society’s behalf. Also emphasised is the production of knowledge and ensuring access to the results of this process (Högberg & Fahlander, 2017: 15). Much of the practical and administrative aspects of contract maritime work in Scandinavia involves the survey, excavation and interpretation of archaeological remains. However, it is now emphasised that the results of this work move beyond its own value to provide access, democratic participation to heritage and be of benefit to society (COE, 2005). While part of the same legal system, maritime archaeology is taught and in many cases is treated differently to archaeological projects carried out on land. Since its development as a sub-discipline from the 1960s, many of the early questions and objectives that drove the development of maritime archaeology are still evident today.

While heritage goals have been adapting, there has also been an increase in the adoption of digital and 3D technologies to investigate, document and study underwater maritime archaeological sites, providing the means for both archaeological analysis and outreach activities. As archaeologists in many disciplines develop new methodologies, a range of innovative and multidisciplinary solutions are arising. The inaccessibility of maritime archaeology underwater makes outreach especially challenging. As a result digital, especially 3D, technologies have been recognised as having great potential to meet the needs of both maritime archaeological researchers and public audiences.

This research is inspired by a number of critical perspectives from the field of digital archaeology that have begun to question the adoption of digital technologies and methodologies without fully understanding or researching the implications they have on the archaeological process, as well as on those who are a part of it. Framing this research problem are digital archaeology themes and discussions that point to the gap between documentation and communication processes. This includes new approaches to archaeological practice informing a range of multidisciplinary research that considers communication from the start (Petersson, 2018; Börjesson et al. 2016:12). Also influencing this research is what Laurajane Smith calls the authorized heritage discourse, that has been found to dominate western heritage sectors. This discourse prioritizes the role of heritage experts, reinforces gender stereotypes associated with heritage, and defines ways in which people should engage with heritage (Smith, 2006). The starting point for this investigation is problematizing the discipline’s acceptance that digital archaeological visualisations in themselves are a favourable means of communication to non-expert audiences.

On this basis, the study is guided by the following research questions:

  • What are the primary professional priorities, identities and interests that prevail in the Scandinavian contract maritime archaeology sector, and what influence do they have on visualisations and communication of archaeological sites underwater?
  • What are the primary motivations for adopting digital documentation technologies in the contract maritime archaeology sector?
  • How is communication understood by contract maritime archaeologists working in the Scandinavian sector?

The results show that elements of an authorised heritage discourse are evident in the motivations for the use of technologies and the digital visualisations created. Knowledge production within the context of contract projects was found to be predominantly concerned with the efficient creation and reporting of archaeological data to serve as a basis for planning and development decisions. Current workflows are adopted based on outcomes such as efficiency and visuality rather than enhancing interpretation.

Degrees of knowledge production are contingent on the type of project, with different methodologies used for surveys, investigations or in rare cases, excavations. The infrequency of excavations presents limited opportunities for research on underwater sites. Multi-image photogrammetry methods and resulting 3D models of underwater sites are utilised mainly for maritime archaeological investigations in order to effectively document underwater sites. The resulting visualisations are not generally created with communication as a goal but are nonetheless used for outreach purposes. Knowledge production in the form of research and analysis of data from contract projects is largely understood to be the responsibility of academic institutions. The contract sector is seen as one link in the chain of knowledge production, charged with only the task of collecting data.

The contribution to knowledge production by the sector is defined by maritime expertise. Participants predominantly acknowledged the importance of defining their maritime speciality as part of their professional identity, rather than archaeologists or contract archaeology specialists. A distinction was made between maritime archaeology and terrestrial archaeology which further emphasised maritime expertise and a sense of operating separately from other contract departments. Despite the different interests, all participants shared the understanding that data from underwater sites are primarily of relevance for contract projects: to answer the research aims of contract projects that consist of the mapping, collation and management of sites.

The use of digital visualisation technology is primarily in order to increase efficiency by enabling archaeological documentation to be carried out in more visual detail and in less time than traditional, hand-drawn methods. With efficiency as the main basis for using digital documentation technologies and with planning and development priorities informing the data collected, it can be concluded that digital visualisations of underwater archaeological sites resulting from contract archaeology projects and communicated to all audiences are primarily informed by these goals.

Finally, communication of archaeological sites underwater is understood to be greatly improved by the ability to visualise them in 3D, supposedly enhancing non-expert understanding of both the archaeological process underwater and maritime sites themselves. The content considered to be of most relevance and importance to communicate to audiences is the archaeological process that takes place underwater and how underwater sites appear in situ. This limited means by which maritime archaeology sites are presented reflects an authorised heritage discourse where the legitimised means of understanding is that of the experts’.

In conclusion, knowledge pertaining to digital archaeological practice varies within the contract sector. In some instances, the potential for digital solutions to enhance archaeological analysis of limited survey data is acknowledged by some. For others, the understanding of 3D digital data as a means to facilitate new ways of interacting with and interpreting archaeological data is largely unknown. As underwater 3D documentation methodologies are still under development this also means that standards and formats have yet to be established. This allows for effective procedures and workflows to be developed and implemented, thus enabling effective interpretation and communication.



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COE/Council of Europe, 2005. Explanatory Report to the Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society. [ONLINE] Available at:  [Accessed 30th April 2019].

Högberg, A., Fahlander, F. 2017. The Changing Roles of Archaeology in Swedish museum. Current Swedish Archaeology, 25: 13–19.

Petersson, B. 2018. From storing to storytelling – archaeological museums and digitisation. In: Huvila, I. (Ed.) Archaeology and archaeological information work in the digital society. London: Routledge. 70–104.

Smith, L., 2006. Uses of Heritage. Routledge, London