Updated: Feb 15, 2022
It’s not often that I find myself knocking on the door of my local pub - the George and Devonshire in Chiswick - at 9:00 am on a Saturday morning. I wasn’t there for the beer (but it does a very good pint of London Pride) instead I was there with several others from RSAC to learn all about nautical archaeology. Well, maybe not all, but at least an introduction to the subject as covered on the NAS Foundation qualification in Maritime Archaeology.
It all started over a year ago with Cameron Cromwell, Diving Officer of Aldershot Dolphins Scuba Club (ADSC) and also a member of Richmond Sub-Aqua Club (RSAC), deciding that he would run a series of dives on two shipwrecks off the coast of Dorset as part of his British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) First Class Diver qualification.
So, in May 2018, 12 experienced divers from BSAC spent four days aboard Wey Chieftain IV, skippered by Richard Bright-Paul, off the coast of Dorset, diving the wrecks known as the ‘Alexander’ and the ‘Brandy Wreck’. ‘Known as’ because in actual fact nobody really knows the true identity of the wrecks. Our plan was to investigate the wrecks and hopefully to gather evidence that might help to identify them.
If we’re honest, although we devised our own methods to investigate the wrecks using underwater metal detectors, we really didn’t know too much about how to go about conducting an underwater survey. However we did our best and managed to locate what we believed to be several cannon, had lots of other ‘hits’ on our underwater metal detectors which we crudely mapped, and found a few loose artefacts such as the bone handle of a tooth brush which we recovered to the surface (and reported to the Receiver of Wreck). Nevertheless, everyone who took part thoroughly enjoyed the experience of ‘diving with a purpose’ and vowed to dive the same wrecks again the following year, but this time properly aware of how to go about it more systematically and carefully.
Having subsequently discussed our experience, plans and objectives with Peta Knott of NAS, we developed an education plan which involved Cameron and Peta giving talks to divers from both ADSC and RSAC, and resulted in several of us signing up to work towards the NAS Foundation qualification in Maritime Archaeology prior to diving the wrecks again in 2019.
The NAS Foundation qualification is awarded on completion of two eLearning courses Introduction to Maritime Archaeology and the Underwater Archaeology plus the practical Recorder and Surveyor Skills Days.
I’m not too sure what I was expecting from the eLearning courses, but they were certainly more thorough than I had imagined they would be, with lots of information, skills and techniques covered in slide format with the occasional video to further illustrate key points, and questionnaires at the end of each section to test and reinforce what was covered. In total the nine sections and questionnaires took me around seven or eight hours to complete over the couple of weeks prior to the practical training.
The Recorder and Surveyor Skills training was conducted over two days in the George and Devonshire pub, with 12 participants and two instructors – Peta Knott and Geoff Downer from NAS. Following a quick refresher of what was covered on the eLearning modules, we got down to some of the theory and practicalities of conducting an underwater survey, including the whys and wherefores of planning, conducting, documenting and communicating a wreck survey.
Over the two days we learned how to conduct a wreck survey, starting with understanding the legal framework in which we needed to work, researching the site, producing a rough sketch of the wreck and its immediate surroundings including any potential artefacts visible on the seabed. We then got down to the serious tasks needed to conduct the actual survey, which we then put into practice with a couple of practical exercises where we measured and plotted an example ‘wreck’. As this was preparation for conducting a real survey on the seabed, we were additionally tasked with completing some of the exercises using only hand signals to better reflect the communication challenges we face when underwater.
We were graced with beautiful weather for the two days of the course which allowed much of the practical exercises to be conducted outside on the pub patio, which undoubtedly got the attention of the pub staff and regulars who were intrigued, but had no idea what we were up to.
Following this we learned about the challenges in preserving different types of artefacts which reinforced to all of us the need to leave artefacts in situ on the wreck unless there was a real danger of them being damaged or lost forever. We then discussed how to archive the information gathered, communicate the work and any findings, and make it all available to others with an interest in the subject.
Throughout this summer, we plan to continue to survey the ‘Alexander’ and the ‘Brandy Wreck’ but this time equipped with a far greater understanding of how to go about it and what to do with the information we gather. We still hope to be able to add to the knowledge of these two wrecks and maybe uncover sufficient data to help to identify one or both of them with a greater degree of confidence, but that might be the subject of a later report.
In conclusion, I and the other attendees found the training to be informative, fun and certainly provided much food for thought, which we will use as we continue to explore our two target wrecks. I for one will never look at a wreck in quite the same way again.