Maritime archaeologists hard at work by the shore
Maritime archaeologists hard at work. Photo courtesy of Chanelle Zap

Chanelle Zaphiropoulos is a Masters Candidate studying Maritime Archaeology. She is a scuba diver who mixes her love of the ocean with marine biology and maritime history.

How did you become a Maritime Archaeologist?

I was fascinated by the sea for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I watched a lot of Jacques Cousteau’s films which featured maritime archaeology. I remember my dad telling me about how scuba diving was mostly illegal in Greece, when he was growing up there, because of all the ancient artifacts in the water.

When we moved there, and I saw that recreational diving was permitted, I begged my parents to let me try! At the time, I was adamant that I would be a marine biologist when I grew up. I think my parents hoped I would try diving once, realize I didn’t like fish or being underwater, and end up going into a ‘safer’ (or dryer!) career! But I loved it and they were totally supportive!

When I got to Memorial University of Newfoundland to study marine biology, I started taking archaeology courses. There weren’t any available that focused on Maritime Archaeology, but there was plenty about cultures that had a close tie to the sea and I took every one I could, looking for any possible link! I ended up volunteering with a group that focused on the preservation of local wrecks and diving on them was a totally different experience than anything I had experienced in Greece! (Brrrr!)

Chanelle at the helm of a Barcelona Historic Sail Boat
Chanelle at the helm of a Barcelona Historic Sail Boat. Photo courtesy of Chanelle Zap

I was new to the region, but talking to the locals and hearing about their experiences; the stories they heard from parents about the shipwrecks running aground, the rescue efforts, or even family who had perished. It made me feel connected to the wrecks. I started to see the wrecks, as not a ‘thing’ of the past or a place of death, but an item of life. They had so much importance to the living community, both in the memories they hold, the local fishing they allow, and the ecosystems growing on them! I wanted to find a way to link my interest in marine biology, with this human connection, and Maritime Archaeology seemed a perfect way.

Before I was even done university, I was able to take courses through a program offered by the Nautical Archaeology Society. They are based in the UK but have trained teams around the world who teach workshops and lead projects around the world! Through them, I was able to learn some of those basic skills for diving on an archaeological site, and taking measurements properly.

In my Master’s program, we had students from all sorts of disciplines! Some students were divers before we started the program. Some had a background in archaeology or marine biology, like myself. Others loved history and were inspired by the sea. The beautiful thing about archaeology is that it benefits from so many different skills and perspectives. I have read papers on Maritime Archaeology from people who had no experience in the field, but were amazing mathematicians and used their skills to help us locate wrecks or art historians who helped study paintings of old ships.

I had friends who were amazing artists and divers, who volunteered on archaeological projects to help draw artifacts or the wrecks. As long as you are passionate about it, I think there are a lot of skills and backgrounds that you can bring to Maritime Archaeology.  You don’t even have to be a diver or archaeologist! And the really neat part is that we can even work on sites that are now far from the coast but would have had a sea link at some point in their history.

Enjoying this Q&A? Read more stories and interviews with divers at Down to Scuba.

What is a Maritime Archaeologist?

Maritime archaeology is the study of societies that interact with seas. This covers a lot of ground and leaves a lot of possibilities for researchers. A maritime archaeologist can look at how our ancestors cultivated salt from the sea to preserve food. Others may look at how marine trade routes changed over time. Sometimes it involves locating, studying, and preserving shipwrecks or airplane wrecks in the water. It can also include studying communities that lived near the water. I really love how broad and diverse the field is. You could be looking at how the sea air affects the chemistry within our bodies one day, and recording sea shanties the next!

One thing I like to study is how people interact when they are on a boat. What do they eat? What is their life like compared to when they are on land? How do they spend their free time? Depending on when and where researchers are studying, we can get some answers to these questions through written sources like captain’s journals and ship records.

Maritime Archaeologist, Chanelle talking to Mr. Caruana, about maritime history
Talking to Mr. Caruana helps connect past events to Chanelle’s current work. Photo courtesy of Chanelle Zap

Sometimes we talk to living descendants to get the stories they were told by people who lived in that way of life; the children of fishermen or sailors. But what gets everyone excited is the fieldwork and this is where diving comes in! We look for what is called ‘material culture’ which is the objects that people made and used. This is where we find out the true ‘everyday’ details of life onboard.

People often think of maritime archaeology as studying shipwrecks, but this material culture can be found in a lot of places, including in the sand beneath modern harbors!

In the past, a ship might be waiting in the harbour for a week or month, maybe undergoing a quarantine, or waiting for its next crew or shipment to be ready. Instead of going ashore and staying in a hotel, the crew would stay on the boat. A lot of their objects end up overboard and eventually get covered by sand and seaweed. So as maritime archaeologists, we excavate down into the ground just like archaeologists on land and find a lot of clues to help us answer questions about their lives. We may find anything from broken pieces of cargo to the bones from the food they were eating.

But the things I think are most interesting to find are personal items like tobacco pipes or gambling dice. More than likely, the captain didn’t write about how the crew was spending their spare time. Tobacco pipes were probably held for hours a day by a single individual. Imagine someone hundreds of years from now, finds your cell phone. They may not know what games you had on it or what you took pictures of, but they know that it was something that meant a lot to the owner and spent a lot of time with the person. Items like these show us that the people on ships existed outside of simply working and sleeping. They had lives and interests that didn’t stop just because they weren’t on land.

Chanelle Working On Maritime Archaeology
On-field work as a maritime archaeologist. Photo courtesy of Chanelle Zap

How does Maritime Archaeology differ from Marine Biology?

That is a fantastic question, and one that I think gets confused a lot! When I talk to people they get confused between which I am because I am a little bit of both!

Marine biology is the study of life in the water; seaweeds, algae, coral reefs, and all the way up to sharks and whales! Maritime archaeology is the study of human interaction with the sea. That can be the choice to settle on the coast or the construction of lighthouses and shipwrecks to name a few. 

Any diver who has seen how shipwreck sites become covered with marine life may understand my perspective. That the two are fundamentally linked. I am fortunate that I love studying both but that is not always the case. Some people think that the natural sciences (for example biology, chemistry, and physics) should be separate from the social sciences or humanities (such as archaeology, sociology, and psychology).

I think the two fields suffer when there isn’t communication between them, and this has been a real problem. Big projects may try to have a marine biologist and maritime archaeologist on board, but the two have different goals, different terms, and different ways of working. What one does might unintentionally but unmistakably damage the work done by the other. Even communication between the two can be difficult.  

My particular interest has always been in understanding how and why ecosystems thrive around shipwrecks or any human materials that are in the water! I think that understanding this might help us better appreciate the wrecks, and ensure that they are safe dive sites and that they are still around for divers to enjoy many years from now! So what makes my work archaeological rather than purely marine biology, is that I am also looking at how to preserve those human aspects of this environment. Rather than just looking at the biology that is growing around it. 

Maritime Archaeologist, Chanelle, taking measurements underwater
Chanelle taking measurements and notes underwater. Photo courtesy of Chanelle Zap

What are you currently working on?

I have been fortunate enough to work on a few different projects using different skills. One of the topics that is most interesting to me is studying the ecosystems that develop on human items that get left underwater…continue reading

Read Part 2 of Chanelle Zaphiropoulos’ interview

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Emma was terrified of the ocean but dove into her Open Water 7 years ago and hasn't looked back since! She worked as an underwater videographer for several years and is now a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer. She currently runs a dive shop on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand and is the founder of Down To Scuba.

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