Such is the work of a marine archaeologist in Finland

When you mention to a new acquaintance that you work as a marine archaeologist, the most common reaction is wonder or interest. This is often followed by their confused questions: what can a marine archaeologist do in Finland? Is there even anything to explore here? The answer to the latter question is yes! There are almost endless things to explore. Marine archaeological fieldwork can be carried out all year round. About half a dozen active marine archaeologists operate in the Finnish waters.

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Maritime archaeologists of Finnish Heritage Agency

How do you become a marine archaeologist?

In Finland, the opportunities for studying marine archaeology have changed a lot over the past decades. Although archaeology can currently be studied as a major subject at the Universities of Helsinki, Turku, and Oulu, marine archaeological education is still being developed. The University of Helsinki has an assistant professor of marine archaeology.

There is no clear-cut study path to become a marine archaeologist. Such studies require a student to be active and many go abroad to get the proper training. Important aspects of marine archaeological education include knowledge of maritime history and its various sub-categories, such as shipbuilding. Training for research divers is offered in different parts of Europe. Although there is currently no training for research divers in Finland, a reform of the criteria for a degree is ongoing.

You can apply to work in maritime cultural heritage through internships in maritime museums or via various archaeological excavation projects.

Maritime archaeologist photographs the wreck Garpen 1 for a photogrammetric model.

What kind of work does a marine archaeologist do in a year?

The ordinary working life of a marine archaeologist cannot be described in just one sentence. Their work varies according to the seasons: most of the fieldwork is carried out at various sites during the summer and winters are spent in the office processing the collected material.

Many marine archaeological works are usually carried out in the form of projects which last for a certain period. For example, these include inventories and site inspections in connection with zoning and construction projects. These work tasks can include many different things depending on the nature of the ongoing project and what sorts of archaeological sites are in the area.

Maritime archaeological fieldwork cana lso be carried out during winter.

Fieldwork requires concentration

Fieldwork includes all of the practical archaeological tasks which are carried out at a site. Research sites are located throughout the waterways of Finland, from inland waters to the open sea. The fieldwork is prepared according to the diving safety guidelines. It is important to ensure that diving and research equipment is maintained in good condition.

Objects are examined using different marine archaeological methods, depending on the nature of the object and the needs of the research. During the research dives, information about the archaeological objects is systematically collected and attempts are made to find answers to, among other things, the following basic questions:

  • What kind of find is it?
  • How old is the object?
  • Why is it in this particular location?
  • What will be done with this find in the future?
Maritime archaeologist excavating an underwater stone age settlement site.

Fieldwork operations are affected by daily weather conditions, particularly at sea. Once under the surface, the marine archaeologist must concentrate on both documentation and diving safety. A camera is often the most important documentation tool.

In Baltic Sea conditions, the visibility can vary greatly and even in summer the water temperatures are often quite low. The depth of the object also affects the research: the deeper the object lies, the more challenging the conditions become.

 Exploration is sometimes carried out near the shore. The initial phase of the marine archaeological excavation of the pile structure on the island of Iso Mustasaari, Suomenlinna.

The work is much more than just diving

The fieldwork is still only a small part of archaeological work. It is estimated that less than ten per cent of the total working time of marine archaeology is spent on underwater fieldwork. Preparatory and follow-up work generally take three or four times more time than work carried out in the field. Time constraints also determine what kind of fieldwork is done, i.e. whether you have sampled an object (invasive) or only documented it (non-invasive).  

The footage is archived and on occasion, three-dimensional models are also produced for research and presentation purposes. Data collected in the field are entered and stored in the Ancient Remains Registry maintained by the Finnish Heritage Agency.

Samples from the examined objects are analysed and sent to the laboratory for dating. Finally, the marine archaeologist drafts a report, plans any possible publications, and presents the work that has been done. When the field season is over, it is already time to plan the research for the next one.

Marine archaeologists are also involved in matters relating to the management of maritime cultural heritage. The work includes the drafting of various presentations, summaries, and reports. Also, various research plans and budgets are prepared.

Marine archaeologists actively participate in marine archaeology conferences and other meetings both at home and abroad. Current topics for discussion, such as climate change, ocean littering, ghost fishing nets, and maritime spatial planning also affect marine archaeology. Also, marine archaeologists process material collected by amateur divers, as well as reports of new underwater finds.

Maritime archaeologist Minna Koivikko saws a wood sample from a wreckpart.