Maritime Archaeology

The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary uses a variety of tools and techniques to locate and document shipwreck sites. Since the sanctuary's seafloor lies at depths ranging from 65 to 600 feet, sophisticated equipment is often needed to conduct archaeological research. Sanctuary researchers have used SCUBA, side scan sonar, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Through its partnerships, the sanctuary strives to use cutting-edge technology to bring to life New England's maritime history.


Divers onboard the R/V Connecticut prepare to investigate a shipwreck. Courtesy of NOAA/SBNMS, NURC-UConn, UConn, and NUWC.

The towfish registers the reflected sound and a computer on board the research vessel interprets the sound into a seafloor image. Side scan sonar can only locate shipwrecks that protrude above the seafloor.

Another tool used to locate shipwrecks is a magnetometer. Magnetometers are also towed behind a research vessel, where they detect variations in the earth's magnetic field that may be caused by the iron or other magnetic materials on or embedded in the seafloor. A magnetometer can detect shipwreck features such as anchors, cannons, and machinery

Side Scan Sonar

A side scan sonar (yellow) uses sound to image seafloor. A magnetometer (orange)
detects iron objects on the seafloor.

Side Scan Sonar Image

A side scan sonar image of the steamship Portland.
Courtesy of Klein Sonar Associates.

Once a shipwreck is located it is time to get in the water. Sanctuary researchers use SCUBA diving equipment to slip below the ocean's surface and examine the shipwrecks first hand. SCUBA equipment allows the researchers to comfortably breathe and stay warm in the cold New England water. Archaeological divers carry measuring tapes, slates, and pencils to create scaled drawings of the shipwrecks. The scaled drawing are analyzed and compared to information in the historical record that might reveal when the ship was in service and what kind of vessel it was. Divers also use video and still photography to document the site.

boat and divers

Sanctuary divers examine and photograph the remains of shipwrecks to determine their archaeological and historical significance. Courtesy of Tane Casserley, NOAA's MHP.

Shipwrecks in deeper sections of the sanctuary are explored with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). ROVs are tethered robots that "fly" through the water, allowing sanctuary scientists to spend hours gathering archaeological data without being limited by the cold water, air supply, and depths. Equipped with lights and video cameras, ROVs are launched and controlled from a research vessel positioned above the shipwreck. Archaeologists study the video transmitted through the tether to determine the age, characteristics, and possible identity of the shipwreck. The sanctuary conducts yearly ROV cruises, in partnership with the National Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut (NURC-UConn) and other institutions.


The NURC-UConn ROV Hela is launched from the
research vessel to image shipwrecks in the depths of the sanctuary. Courtesy of Anne Smrcina, NOAA/SBNMS.

The newest technology used by the sanctuary is an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). AUV's are un-tethered robots programmed to maneuver along a predetermined path and fulfill a specific function, such as taking photographs or sampling the water. After the AUV completes its mission, it returns to the surface where researchers retrive up the vehicle and download the data collected during the mission. AUVs used by the sanctuary to investigate maritime heritage resources have been outfitted with downward facing cameras to gather images that will be pieced together to build a photomosaic.

AUV The sanctuary has conducted AUV surveys on shipwrecks in partnership with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC), and NURC-UConn.

Two REMUS AUVs. The vehicle on the right (with its cover removed) is having data download and its batteries charged. Courtesy of NOAA/SBNMS, NURC-UConn, UConn, and NUWC.

Maritime archaeologists use their tools and techniques to fulfill the sanctuary's requirements to locate, assess, protect, and interpret its maritime heritage resources. Technological advancements will undoubtedly allow archaeologists to better tell the human stories represented by the sanctuary's historic shipwrecks.


Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Web Group
Website Owner: Department of Commerce
Many links leave the National Marine Sanctuary Web Site (often indicated with External Website Image) - please view our Disclaimer for more information
National Marine Sanctuaries |National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration | National Ocean Service | Privacy Policy | User Survey
Contact Us |
Photo Credits for Section Pages