Review of ‘Maritime Archaeology: A Technical Handbook’ by J. Green

21st May 2014

Stuart Book Review Cover 1992‘Maritime Archaeology: A Technical Handbook’ by J. Green, 1990, London: Academic Press, 282 pp. ISBN 0-12-298630-X (hbk)

Review by Iain Stuart

Maritime archaeology is one or the growth areas of archaeology. The advances made in the development of SCUBA in the 1950s made shipwrecks available to an increasing number of people. With this came the realisation that maritime sites had the potential to yield a huge amount of archaeological information. Veritable time capsules; from the Bismarck to the Sydney Cove.

Jeremy Green is one of the world’s leading maritime archaeologists. His work on Dutch-Australian shipwrecks in the early 1970s led to the growth in maritime archaeology to the stage where currently, each state of Australia has its own centre of maritime expertise. He has also undertaken extensive work on shipwreck sites in Southeast Asia.

Thus Jeremy Green is well placed in terms of expertise and experience to write a handbook that summarises his technical knowledge in maritime archaeology. Green views maritime archaeology as covering archaeology in the marine environment (i.e. including sites such as Port Royal in Jamaica, and presumably not those ships in the Murray River). But most of his examples are from work on shipwrecks.

This book is organised into five areas: site survey, recording sites, excavation, management of collections, research and publication. The coverage is, as Jeremy Green admits, a reflection of his career and experience in maritime archaeology. Naturally enough a technical handbook reflects an approach to maritime archaeology that emphasises the technical or methodological rather than the theoretical. Apart from a brief reference in Chapter 12, to some of the arguments on the nature of historical archaeology, the archaeological waters are not disturbed by processual or even the post-processual theoretical considerations. Indeed the issue of archaeological research is seen purely in technical sense. Chapter 2, Research, deals with research prior to undertaking archaeological fieldwork. The nature of this research is to allow more efficient use of archaeological fieldwork time. an obviously good idea.

In Chapter 12, Post-Excavation Research, post-excavation research is put forward as the raison d’etre of maritime archaeological research and the rest of the chapter aims to explain how to analyse and interpret the archaeological record. Inevitably with such a broad aim. what follows is a bit limited. Green identifies two theoretical frameworks used by maritime archaeologists. historical particularism and ‘an anthropological perspective’. He discusses artefact analysis, scientific analysis, historical material, experimental archaeology and integration of all these into a coherent whole. While these discussions are adequate, what is not clearly established is that archaeology, and for that matter history, has a broader range of theoretical approaches to a site or problem than discussed in the book. Green cannot be criticised for not discussing various theoretical stances in depth, but some mention of the alternatives available, beyond the positions currently taken by maritime archaeologists. could have been made.

What is also not strongly emphasised enough, is that the theoretical and research stance taken by an investigator determines the nature of archaeological fieldwork. The emphasis on post-excavation research as the place where the primary research questions for a project are asked must be questioned. It would seem logical for the material in Chapter 12 to have been discussed in Chapter 2.

As an aside, this reviewer disagrees with Green’s assessment (on pp.240-l) that historical archaeology cannot be used as a model for the integration of historical documentation into maritime archaeological research. Green argues this point on the basis that the jargon used by the historical archaeologists is difficult to understand! Surely this antique argument, from the early days of ‘New Archaeology’, leads nowhere.

The main strengths of the book are, the clarity of expression, the depth of coverage and the good integration of illustrations and text to explain the techniques. Most land bound archaeologists are not aware of how the marine environment changes the nature of archaeological work. Obviously everything is wet, but more subtle effects of water in distorting light rays and changing perspectives are not well known.

The basic land recording techniques of surveying and tape measurements are complicated by factors such as current, poor visibility and the lack of underwater surveying instruments. In many ways underwater recording is back to the basics of compass and tape surveys with 3, 4, 5 triangles, trilateration and an underwater version of Johnson’s water level to give depths. Green explains each technique as well as expanding on their usefulness and accuracy.

Photography, in many ways, replaces underwater surveying. It is relatively easy to get a photographic image that then can be manipulated to obtain to scale plans and drawings of sites. The book is strong in this area giving various formulas for correcting photographic images.

The chapter on excavation is best avoided by fanatical ICOMOS members as excavation techniques include dredging, and use of crow-bar, hammer and pick. an underwater chainsaw and explosives (great for removing corrosion!).

The subsequent chapter, Conservation, is a real weak point. Not because of its short length (Green rightly cites more comprehensive treatments of artefact conservation) but because the implications of having to conserve every artefact raised (basically due to immersion in salt water) are not discussed. These implications are enormous and surely impose severe limitations on the nature and amount of excavation that can be done.

Green does not discuss the impact of excavation on the archaeological site and its environment. Even small excavations to establish the nature of a site can be destabilising and destructive, resulting in a huge site conservation job for someone, usually the taxpayer. More attention needs to be paid to the issue of site conservation.

The chapters on artefact drawing, artefact photography and publication are good introductions to the subjects although limited by the book’s size. Obviously these subjects are better covered by the various specialist publications such as The Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology and the Australian Government Style Manual.

The delay between writing (c. 1988) and publishing has meant that recent advances in video and computer technology have outpaced the book’s treatment of these topics. In particular the capturing of images acquired by video or still camera, their storage on computer (so called desktop video) and the subsequent potential to manipulate and enhance them, are threatening to replace traditional cameras for recording and illustrating underwater sites. This is an exciting area of development which has much to offer the archaeologist. Certainly if a second edition appears, a much fuller treatment of these issues will be required.

Overall the book achieves what it sets out to do: to present technical information of maritime archaeology based on Jeremy Green’s experience. A more rounded treatment of the theory underlying archaeology would have been more satisfactory to this reviewer, but the book has great strengths in presenting the basics of underwater field techniques to the archaeologist.

The book will be used as a handy reference work that is ideal to take on a Held trip. However will anyone buy it? At $98.95 it is difficult to see the publishers selling more than a few copies in Australia, and difficult to see their owners allowing such a book out of the library into the field where the technical handbook belongs.

Stuart, I.
Review of 'Maritime Archaeology: A Technical Handbook’ by J. Green
December 1992
Book Reviews
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