Maritime archaeology is the scientific study of underwater cultural heritage and related land-based sites.
Underwater cultural heritage refers to all traces of human existence with cultural, historical or archaeological character that have been partially or totally submerged. Shipwrecks are the most commonly known type of underwater cultural heritage. Submerged aircraft, military defence systems, wharfs, jetties, port and fishing facilities and inundated human occupation sites are also included in this definition.
About the Museum's Program
The museum runs a Maritime Archaeology Program that advises and actively helps Commonwealth, state agencies and overseas government authorities responsible for underwater cultural heritage.
The program provides advice and resources by:
- Sending trained staff to underwater cultural heritage sites to help survey, excavate, interpret and preserve them
- Advising on collection management, conservation and acquisition of underwater cultural heritage material
- Advising on international recommendations and policies including those of the International Congress of Maritime Museums (ICMM), the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.
- Advising on relevant legislation
Contact us for a copy of the policy.
The museum follows strict guidelines around displaying, lending and acquiring archaeological material.
- Archaeological material recovered from 4 pre-colonial Dutch shipwrecks off Western Australia's coast (displayed in Navigators) and materials recovered other underwater cultural heritage sites have undergone official approval. Under the 1972 Australian - Netherlands Committee on Old Dutch Shipwrecks (ANCODS), the museum is the commonwealth repository of selected material from the Dutch shipwrecks.
- The museum does not buy or accept archaeological material, except in special circumstances. When we are offered material, we investigate transferring it to the designated national or state authority, or relevant state museum or cultural institution.
- When the museum borrows archaeological material for display, the material must have been obtained in accordance with the 1990 ICMM recommendations. The material must not have been excavated for profit and it must have been legally obtained, excavated scientifically and ethically, and the archaeological collection preserved intact.
BORROWING FROM OUR COLLECTION
The museum receives many requests from Australia and overseas to acquire, borrow or lend archaeological material. Our Maritime Archaeology Program Policy includes guidelines about ethical practices and legislation, and aims to curb the destruction of underwater cultural heritage sites, and illegal or unethical trade in artefacts.
Contact us for a copy of the policy.
If you are interested in researching shipwrecks around Australia there are many online resources to help. The museum’s Library also has journal articles and conference papers by museum staff which are available online.
- Australian National Shipwreck Database
- Maritime Heritage Online New South Wales
- Historical Shipwrecks in Australia
- Shipwrecks Contacts for each State
- Shipwrecks Corrosion and Conservation
Legislation to protect wrecks and artefacts
Shipwrecks are protected by commonwealth and state legislation.
- New South Wales: Heritage Act (1977)
- Northern Territory: Heritage Conservation Act (1991)
- Queensland: Queensland Heritage Act (1992)
- South Australia: Heritage Places Act 1993
- South Australia: Historic Shipwrecks Act (1981)
- Tasmania: Historic Cultural Heritage Act (1995)
- Victoria: Heritage Act (1995)
- Victoria: Heritage Historic Shipwrecks General Regulations (1996)
- Western Australia: Maritime Archaeology Act 1973
The Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (AIMA) is the professional body for Australian maritime archaeologists.
The association produces a newsletter and a scholarly journal, the Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, and has a regular conference with papers from Australia and overseas. Publications produced by AIMA are available at the Vaughan Evans Library.
The AIMA Bulletin is the first publication point for maritime archaeological research in Australia. The AIMA website contains useful information, including contacts, an index to the Bulletin and past issues of the newsletter available online. The Bulletin is also indexed by the abstracting and indexing service APAIS which is available online at many libraries around Australia. In some larger libraries, such as university libraries and state libraries, this resource is available as a full text service.
Online discussion list
The HistArch discussion list is useful for keeping up-to-date with Australian and international developments in maritime archaeology. This a moderated list.
Courses in maritime archaeology
You can choose from a range of courses in maritime archaeology, from short courses to postgraduate degrees. AIMA offers the AIMA/NAS maritime archaeology training course. Flinders University and James Cook University offer postgraduate and shorter courses in maritime archaeology.
Imagine being the first people to find the remains of a troop ship that has been lost underwater for more than 180 years. Or helping excavate the wreck of a frigate that was sent to recapture HMAV Bounty and its mutinous crew and was itself lost on the Great Barrier Reef in 1791. The museum’s maritime archaeological team keeps busy surveying and documenting fascinating wrecks and artefacts. Here are some of the exciting projects we’ve worked on.
103 years after AE1 sank, the submarine’s final resting place was located off the coast of the Duke of York Islands in Papua New Guinea. The thirteenth search effort to find the submarine, conducted in December 2017, was successful. The expedition team was jointly funded by the Australian Government, the Silentworld Foundation, the Australian National Maritime Museum and Find AE1 Ltd, and utilised Fugro Survey’s vessel and search technology. Read more
The maritime archaeology team in partnership with the Silentworld Foundation surveyed the remains of the Indian-built troopship Fergusson in 2013 – wrecked on the reef that now bears its name – in 1841 and searched for the remains of the missing opium clipper – Morning Star – wrecked on an unidentified reef near Raine Island in 1814. Read more
Royal Charlotte (1825)
The Royal Charlotte was on a voyage from Sydney to India with more than 125 soldiers and their families when it was wrecked on the reef in 1825. In January 2012 the museum and its generous sponsor the Silentworld Foundation located the remains of the Indian built 3-masted ship on remote Frederick Reef, 400 kilometres off the coast of Gladstone, Queensland. Read more
Wreck Reefs project
In December 2009 the museum’s maritime archaeology team and the Silentworld Foundation surveyed the remains of HMS Porpoise and the merchant ship Cato which had been wrecked on this isolated reef system in the Coral Sea in 1803.
In 1829, the HM Colonial Schooner Mermaid ran aground and broke up somewhere on the Great Barrier Reef. Several search attempts over 40 years were unsuccessful. In 2009, the museum’s maritime archaeology team, who were part of an expedition team from the Silentworld Foundation, James Cook University and the Museum of Tropical Queensland, found the elusive wreck that had been missing for 180 years. The team had been following up promising clues including a pulley sheath stamped with a broad arrow, and the 19th-century mark of government ownership (Mermaid was a government ship). Ongoing work includes comparing the physical evidence on the wreck site to historical accounts of what happened on the fateful day the ship struck the reef. Read more
If you have a question about the museum’s Maritime Archaeology Program or our collection please contact:
Kieran Hosty, Manager, Maritime Archaeology Program
Phone: +61 2 9298 3710