The history of maritime archaeology

Shipwrecks have always interested people throughout time. For a long time, wrecks were seen as recyclable materials and not as historical objects of research. Although rescue operations have been carried out on shipwrecks and sometimes even looting, the boundary between these two activities has sometimes been a bit vague.

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Sinikka Kärkkäinen

The writer works as a project researcher in the Finnish Heritage Agency

It all began with the rescue operation of wrecks

In Nordic countries, diving operations took its first steps in the 1660s, when the “Northern Diving and Rescue Company” was established in Sweden-Finland. The company included Finnish divers who also took part in raising the cannons from the well-known Swedish ship Vasa, which sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. This operation was carried out with the help of heavy dive bells that were lowered to the bottom with the divers inside.

The rescue company operated with varying degrees of success until 1808, after which organised diving operations in Finland ceased for decades. Ancient remains on land were also charted as early as the 17th century when the Swedish Board of Antiquities launched a nationwide survey of monuments.

Even then, the same basic data on ancient remains were collected that we collect today. This archaeological perspective gradually shifted to diving activities also. Thus, marine archaeology has its roots in both wreck rescue operations and archaeology.

Divers were looking for a wreck in Hanko in 1918.

Archaeological activities are managed by The Finnish Antiquarian Society

Actual cultural heritage activities officially began in 1870 when the Finnish Antiquarian Society was founded. In addition, the Office of Archaeology was established in 1884, which was later renamed the Archaeological Commission. Over time, it became the current Finnish Heritage Agency.

After a long hiatus, diving operations began again in 1885, when planks were lifted to the surface for examination from a wreck dating from the Finnish War (1808-1809). However, throughout the early 20th century, diving was still limited to heavier work diving and partly to the activities of the Defence Forces.

A diver, Wiljam Sandberg, ascends from a hole cut in the ice for a coffee break after searching the bottom for the lost propeller of the harbour icebreaker Alpo in the Toppila Strait in 1962.

Wreck finds as inspirations for marine archaeological research

The inventions of the Second World War greatly influenced the development of diving. For example, diving masks were created from gas masks, while breathing regulators were developed from pilots’ oxygen equipment. Jacques Cousteau was also a significant source of inspiration for Finnish diving enthusiasts. Cousteau was a famous French naval captain whose investigations were ground-breaking.
In Finland, recreational diving began among a small group of people in the 1950s. In the beginning, the diving equipment had to be self-built, because in post-war Finland such specialised equipment was not widely available and the gear of professional divers was too heavy for enthusiasts to use. The numerous wrecks in our waters became dive sites right from the beginning of this hobby.

The impetus for actual marine archaeology occurred when the wreck of the Russian warship, the Sankt Nikolai, which sank in a naval battle in 1790 was discovered off the city of Kotka in 1948. The almost perfectly preserved wreck inspired scientists, divers, and the people of Kotka alike, whose desire was to lift the whole wreck to the surface.

Due to their enthusiasm, objects and structural components began to be lifted from the wreck at a rapid pace and were badly damaged during the recovery attempts. Some of the finds were destroyed because there was neither time nor knowledge of how to conserve them properly on the surface. Later, more resources and expertise were gained for conservation.

Other significant wrecks in the early days of marine archaeological research were the Sankt Mikael, as well as the Esselholm and Metskär wrecks. Indeed, shipwreck research, new discoveries, and the development of diving have gone hand in hand.

Divers engaged in fieldwork on the wreck of the Sankt Nikolai off Kotka in 1977.

The state is involved in underwater activities and the protection of wrecks

Underwater activities among wrecks, new finds, as well as the example of the lifting and conservation of the ship Vasa in Sweden, have all acted as a springboard for Finnish archaeologists and the state to act. In 1961, the state established the Maritime Museum Committee to regulate the work of sport divers. The establishment of a national maritime museum was also considered.

When the new Antiquities Act came into force in 1963, the Finnish Coast Guard also began to keep a closer eye on wrecks. The Marine Archaeological Bureau was established under the auspices of the Archaeological Commission in 1968, which was transformed five years later into the Bureau of Maritime History.

The 1970s were a very active time in wreck research and amateur divers were also trained to assist. The Maritime Museum was finally opened on Hylkysaari Island in Helsinki in 1981. Today, the Maritime Museum operates in Kotka, in the maritime centre known as Vellamo.

Amateur divers at the research camp of the Sophia Maria wreck off the city of Oulu in 1979.