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Interview With An Underwater Archaeologist
Date:02/10/03  By Editorial

Underwater exploration and adventure is a huge part of the thrill of diving. The ocean remains a mostly unexplored frontier of historical discoveries that inspires our imagination. Scuba divers can experience some of the thrills in charting this new territory, but few have the opportunity to be professionally trained for such discoveries, and even fewer get paid for it.

...those of us who are in the field are in it for love of the science and the pursuit of knowledge...

underwater photo of a diver with a bolano
© 2003, Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research
Della Ireton Scott holding a bolano (stone cannon ball) on the 16th-century Spanish Emanuel Point Shipwreck in Pensacola Bay

underwater photo of divers mapping the wreck of the Half Moon
© 2003, Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research
Della Ireton Scott and Mike Beach mapping Half Moon

photo of della scott ireton
© 2003, Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research
Underwater archaeologist Della Scott-Ireton photographing the wreck of the Half Moon near Miami Florida

We recently got lucky and had the good fortune of speaking with one of the lucky ones...a real-life underwater archaeologist whose job it is to better understand our underwater historical resources. Her name is Della Scott-Ireton, and this is what she had to say...

SDD: Give us your version of what you do for a living.

DSI: Primarily, I am a cultural resource manager. The Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research is responsible for managing archaeological resources on state-owned and controlled lands, and that includes submerged lands. All archaeological resources in Florida are protected under Florida law that prohibits unauthorized disturbance. We respond to reports of newly found archaeological sites by recording the sites and adding them to the Florida Master Site File; we also spend a lot of time on public education - giving lectures and presentations to dive clubs and avocational archaeological societies and whatnot. We also perform research, including survey and excavation, when necessary. We are all about preservation of the resource, rather than consumption.

SDD: If planning a regular dive can take the better part of a day, I'd hate to think about the time it takes to survey and report on an entire archaeological site...not to mention the paperwork! How much time do you actually spend diving?

DSI: That depends on what projects are going on. We do get out in the field quite a bit, but it depends on what needs to be done, as well as on budget restrictions (which comes up occasionally) that may restrict travel. When we're on a project, we may dive every day for several weeks, then we're in the office for quite a while on analysis, research, and reporting.

SDD: If your boss isn't reading, how many hours do you put in a day?

DSI: haha:) I usually work a standard 8 hour day, but when we're on a project or in a crunch to get a report done, I'll work as long as I need to, and weekends too.

SDD: It seems a large number of marine researchers start out as researchers, then learn to dive as opposed to being divers that learn to research. What are your experiences? Do you think one approach is better than the other?

DSI: Personally, I was a diver before I was an archaeologist, but that is kind of unusual. I wanted to be an archaeologist since I was a little girl, and then my parents gave me dive lessons for my high school graduation present. So, I learned to dive the summer before I started college where I majored in anthropology (archaeology). I was fortunate to be able to take courses in underwater archaeology and to participate in a field school, so I married my two great interests. I don't think one approach is better or worse than the other, but I think those who want to pursue a career in underwater archaeology have to want to be an archaeologist, not a diver who does archaeology on the side. Most "archaeological" diving is in very poor conditions.

SDD: What's your favorite site?

DSI: Well, all sites have their attraction, but the Emanuel Point Shipwreck in Pensacola Bay holds a special place in my heart since I was on the team that discovered it and initially excavated it (also wrote my MA thesis on it). I also love the city and harbor of Caesarea Maritima in Israel, where I worked in the summer of 1990.

SDD: Of course, we have to ask, what are the job prospects like for budding marine archaeologists? How hard is it to make a living in your field?

DSI: There are fewer than 100 full-time positions in underwater archaeology in the nation. I am very fortunate to have one, and even my position is not totally secure depending on budget cuts and the like. I'm not saying its impossible, just that you have to make yourself very marketable through training, school, diving qualifications, and experience. You'll never make a lot of money, so those of us who are in the field are in it for love of the science and the pursuit of knowledge, not wealth.

SDD: What is the primary motivation behind most of the projects in your line of work? Education? Commerce? History? Do you feel that the motivators are appropriate?

DSI: That's a hard one. Many projects are undertaken because sites are threatened by something (erosion, looting, dredging, construction, whatever). Some projects are driven by pure research questions. I am a supporter of in situ preservation - sites in water have reached an equilibrium with their environment and are best left alone unless it is absolutely necessary to disturb them. In many cases, test excavations to determine what is there is enough to satisfy basic questions and the site can be left alone for future archaeologists who will have better techniques and tools than we do. Just because something is there is not a good enough reason to dig it up.

SDD: I've heard members of the wreck diving public say that wreck artifacts belong in museums or on their mantles because they get more public exposure that way. How do you feel about recreational divers taking "momentos" home from the wrecks?

DSI: I am opposed to it as an archaeologist and as a sport diver and, personally, I possess no artifacts from shipwrecks. In the first place, there are federal and state laws in place that protect submerged cultural resources from unauthorized disturbance or digging, and that includes the taking of artifacts. These resources belong to everyone, so no one person has the "right" to take things. The example I often use is, you wouldn't take a brick from Mount Vernon, would you? Then why take a porthole from a shipwreck? Additionally, there is the issue of conservation. You can't take something from the marine environment and just let it dry out - it will rust or crumble away to nothing without proper chemical treatment to remove salts and, in the case of wood, to replace the water that has invaded the individual cells. Conservation may take years and is very expensive - this is a major consideration for archaeologists too, who often leave portions of sites unexcavated. Many divers have seen the pathetic rotting cannons and anchors from the wrecked 1733 Spanish plate fleet in the Keys - nearly every dive shop and strip mall has one and none have been conserved. They are all literally falling apart - you can see the piles of rust underneath them. I would think divers would much rather see them on the ballast mounds where they originally were, surrounded by sea life and encrusted with coral. Think of it this way too: if every diver who visited a wreck took something, pretty soon there would be nothing left to see and then why would you want to dive there? It is up to the divers of today to preserve our wreck sites for the divers of tomorrow. Shipwrecks are non-renewable resources and it only makes sense to protect what we have.

SDD: Why would you encourage or discourage people from going in to your field?

DSI: Oh, I totally encourage anyone who wants to pursue it! Nothing would have kept me from going into archaeology. People just need to understand its a long process of college, grad school and, for most, doctoral programs. Generally it takes a long time as a volunteer on various projects to gain the necessary experience. There’s also a lot of travel (which I enjoy but a lot of people don't like). On the diving side, I’m trained as a NAUI Instructor and have several hundred hours of experience as a research diver. Even with this experience, there’s not much salary involved and the job security is questionable. There's not a lot of giant rolling boulders or thwarting Nazis, but its definitely an adventure.

SDD: Well it sounds like you have plenty of good days at work. What's the best day you've ever had on the job and why?

DSI: That's hard because I like so much about my job. I love meeting and talking to divers at shows and conventions like DEMA. I love seeing parts of Florida that most don't get to see. I love diving in all kinds of conditions, from clear water in the Keys to dark, alligator-infested rivers. I especially love seeing the remains of our maritime past in the form of wrecked ships and boats, and learning about their history and their link to maritime cultures and lifeways.

SDD: Della, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.

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