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Look Back: Underwater Archaeology in Ontario

Long before the creation of this blog, and before the digital Palisade E-Post, the museum sent out paper newsletters. First published in February 1979, each Palisade Post issue is a snapshot of what was happening in Ontario archaeology during this time, and is the basis of our Look Back series.

Underwater Archaeology in Ontario: An Overview

April 1982 Vol 4. No. 2 Author: Scarlett Janusas (ed note: Ms. Janusas was an intern at the museum at the time).

Image of submerged ship Underwater Archaeology in Ontario

Underwater archaeologists share a common goal with treasure hunters and salvagers: each wants to bring to the surface that which the sea and other bodies of water have claimed. In all other respects, the similarities between these groups disappear.

Treasure hunters, as the label implies, occupy themselves with the removal of items for which monetary gains may be made. Occasionally, they may complete maps denoting positions of artifacts and other items of worth, but these maps at best, are just sketches employed for relocating the site for the sole purpose of continuing the pillage. Salvagers are even less concerned with recording and mapping. Their purpose is to haul up items which can later be sold for scrap metal. There is a time and profit incentive for both the treasure hunter and the salvager. Greater profits can be realized by spending less actual time on the site.

This attitude of ‘ultimate greed’ is totally irreconcilable to anyone concerned with heritage conservation. Removal and deconstruction of information is a by-product of the occupation of the treasure hunter and salvager, but it is this information that is of primary importance to the underwater archaeologist, for it can lead to the disclosure of details concerning the shipboard activity, vessel type, shipbuilding technology, vessel dimensions, cargo, cause of wreck, and much, much more.

Underwater archaeology creates an aura of adventure and excitement. The adventure exists, but the reality is that almost ninety percent of the excavation involves lifting and hauling, which can be monotonous. Cold, deep, fresh water presents the opportunity for archaeologists to discover sites (prehistoric and historic) in an almost perfect state of preservation. But these same conditions which make a site so attractive and culturally valuable also create specific problems for the underwater archaeologist.

Cold water dictates that some protection for the diver be made available. Exposure suits can protect the diver for hours at a time, but they also reduce mobility and dexterity. Thick neoprene restricts the divers’ movement and the use of three-fingered gloves involves a new method of manipulating pen and tools. Working at great depths reduces the amount of allowable bottom time without having the diver risk decompression sickness, better know as the ‘bends’.

Breathing compressed air at depth produces another complication for the underwater archaeologist called nitrogen narcosis or ‘rapture of the deep’. As the phrase implies, the diver experiences a euphoria not unlike drinking a few martinis on an empty stomach. This not only impedes work, but creates a danger to the diver.

Many of the tools that the underwater archaeologist uses are modified versions of the tools of the terrestrial archaeologist. The tape measure, mallet, sketch pad, grid system, and camera are all employed underwater, but the trowel, shovel and the traditional stake-grid system are absent from the underwater archaeologist’s tool assemblage.

Another problem in excavating an underwater site is the reduced visibility that may be caused by the diver stirring up bottom sediment. Two methods can be used to resolve this difficulty. The first involves a simple weight adjustment by the diver so that he is literally suspended above the bottom and is thus prevented from kicking up sediment with his fins. The second method involves actual removal of the sediment by means of an air suction hose which deposits the sediment far enough from the site to prevent reduced visibility. Unfortunately, the two methods are not always sufficient. In many areas of Ontario, visibility will remain poor to nil at all times. Rivers with mud bottoms, such as the Thames (ed. note – in Southwestern Ontario) River, create difficulties in even locating sites by vision alone.

Another visibility-related problem occurs at deep water sites. Less sunlight is able to filter through to deeper regions, thus creating a dark working environment. This problem can in part be alleviated by dive lights. A case in point is the H.M.S. Breadalbane, a 428-tonne supply ship that sank in 1853, off Beechey Island in the Northwest Territories. Seven lights, the type employed on a Boeing 747 aircraft, will be used in the near future to illuminate the British barque for photographic purposes.

Although not in Ontario, the Breadalbane Project is of great historical value and interest. The vessel was on a rescue mission, searching for the explorer Sir John Franklin, when it was holed by ice. The ship sank in a short fifteen minute span in 325 feet of water. The cold Arctic waters have done much to preserve the wreck, even to the point where remains of her sails are still present. Further work on the Breadalbane is contingent upon the ice thickness, which affects equipment transport.

Map of Fathom Five National Park

Grid systems employed in underwater archaeology must fulfill several criteria. These systems must be compact, portable, flexible and be heavy enough or have securing devices to be anchored above a site and withstand strong currents to avoid displacement. Mr. Stan McCellan of the Ministry of Natural Resources employed an aluminium grid system (ed note – image can be seen in original publication, unsuitable for reprinting here), which was embedded in the sediment to conduct some shallow water work during his Griffon Cove Project.

The aim of this two year study, conducted during 1978 – 1979, was to identify a vessel which had been purchased by Fathom Five Provincial Park in Tobermory to collect any additional data about the area in which the wreck was originally found. The vessel was reputed to be the Griffon, which is thought to be the first sailing vessel to cruise the Great Lakes. The Griffon was constructed by La Salle in the 17th century near Fort Erie, to carry furs during the fur trade back to Montreal. La Salle sailed her from Fort Erie to Green Bay and through the Straits of Mackinaw. The Griffon disappeared on her return voyage and the vessel purchased by Fathom Five Provincial Park was originally thought to be the one and the same. Mr. McClellan was able to ascertain that the wreck was a mid-19th century vessel and establish that it was not, in fact, the Griffon.

Notable Ontario Underwater Archaeology Projects

Image of the shipwreck Sweepstakes
Image: Jack Salen

Other careful and well-conducted work is being carried out elsewhere in Ontario in the field of underwater archaeology. For example, Mr. William Fox, of the Ministry of Citizenship and Culture, investigated a wreck discovered in 1981 in the Thames River in Chatham, Ontario. The hull of a 50 foot vessel was lifted from the river this past year, and, while local interested parties believed the vessel to be of 1812 vintage, Mr. Fox was able to correctly date the vessel to the turn of the twentieth century. Although not verified as yet, this wreck may well have been the Morning Light. Plans for the wreck include a graphical documentation in the spring of 1982. It is not surprising to discover a wreck of this nature in Chatham, since this city was a major port in the early 19th century and also supported a ship-building industry.

There are numerous other small projects being undertaken by concerned individuals and groups who are collaborating with heritage resource management people and the Ministry of Citizenship and Culture to accurately record and excavate both historic and prehistoric sites. Fathom Five Provincial Park conducts a continuing program of mapping all the wrecks in the park. The Park prohibits any destruction or removal of underwater sites, and thus provides a veritable ‘diving mecca’ for sport divers.

Mr. Michael Verbrugge obtained assistance from the Ontario Heritage Foundation to investigate a mid-19th century merchant vessel in Lake Erie. The project was initiated in 1978, but was delayed almost a full year due to a faulty reading from the Loran system which had been employed to pinpoint the wreck. The vessel was found by fishermen who had repeatedly lost or damaged their nets on the wreck’s rigging. This project involves examination of a virtually intact vessel and will continue this summer.

Banner for the Hamilton Scourge National Historic Site

A major project that has recently received considerable press coverage centres on the U.S.S. Hamilton and the U.S.S. Scourge. During the War of 1812, the United States found their navy in short supply of armed vessels. An immediate solution to the problem was to commandeer 13 merchant schooners and outfit them as war schooners. Two of these vessels were the Hamilton, originally called the U.S.S. Diana and the Scourge, originally named the H.M.S. Lord Nelson. On August 7, 1813, the British fleet lay in waters near Grimsby when a storm developed out of Port Credit. The U.S. fleet was hit broadside, and the already unstable Hamilton and Scourge sank. The storm had been so violent that the two ships were not reported missing until the following morning.

Dr. Dan Nelson, head of the Hamilton-Scourge Foundation, assisted in the search for these two vessels. The logbook of a British flagship was employed for rough locational data and, on the basis of the information derived from this book,  a 90 square kilometre search area was defined. This area was surveyed in 1972-73 in 50 meter strips employing magnetometers, side-scan sonar and depth sounders, but without success. After moving the search area to the west, the project finally met with some success when an image at last appeared on the side-scan sonar. No further work could be conducted on these wrecks since the find was made on the last day of the project, and the crew of the search vessels had a previous commitment – a stag party.

The image on the side-scan sonar showed that most of the Hamilton was still standing. The Scourge lies in waters not too distant from the Hamilton. Both ships rest at a depth of 290 feet with a visibility of 1 to 1.5 meters. The ships are extremely well preserved, owing largely to their present environment of a constant four degree Celsius temperature in almost total darkness.

The project recently completed a photogrammetry survey of both ships using equipment donated by the National Geographic Society (ed note: images in link above). Further plans for these two vessels, under the direction of Mr. Ken Cassovoy, include compiling a complete visual reference, conducting conservation studies by examining core samples of the hull, and geotechnical studies of bottom sediments.

Final plans are being prepared to raise the ships and duplicate their present environment for purposes of storage and exhibition. The last phase is being carefully researched before actual implementation since other raised ships have demonstrated that the traditional treatment with polyethelene glycol – which forces moisture out and thus prevents shrinkage and decay – is not sufficient for good conservation.

One example of  the problem in using this polyethelene glycol treatment is the soft cheesy texture of the wood of the Swedish warship, Vasa. The Vasa, a 1400 ton galleon which sank in 110 feet of water on its maiden voyage in 1628, is under serious threat of suffering irreparable damage. The Hamilton-Scourge Project, wishing to avoid this consequence, plans to raise the ships and place them in a large bath solution to duplicate their present environment.

Multiple factors contribute to the condition in which an underwater archaeologist finds a wreck. The state of a vessel before it went down may contribute to a quicker deterioration in its watery grave. The actual event of the wreckage will dictate whether the archaeologist will be dealing with a semi-intact vessel or miscellaneous planking spread far and wide. Currents, surf, and tide aid in the deterioration of a vessel. Burial of the wreck in sediment may protect it from attack from aerobic organisms. Shifting sands may subject the vessel to undue stress and present difficulty for the underwater archaeologist in locating and excavating the wreck. Depth and water temperatures are critical to the state of the site. Greater depth disallows light from penetrating, and also restricts organism growth. Cold water, discussed elsewhere, also aids in the preservation of the wrecks. Fresh water versus salt water environments determine the type of organisms present and hence their involvement in the destruction of the materials. Pollution is yet another factor to consider. And, perhaps, most hazardous of all to a site’s preservation, is man himself.

Sport diving has become very popular within the last decade. A diver descends into a world of weightlessness and his curiosity to explore is aroused. The reasons for diving vary but one class of diver, the ‘wreck’ diver, presents many problems for the underwater archaeologist. What better way in which to commemorate a dive than for a wreck diver to claim a souvenir by prying off a dead-eye or bronze porthole, hauling it back to shore and proudly displaying his new found treasure? The prize is taken home, and all too often, the artifact becomes a center for a coffee table or finds a new home in a dingy back closet. Stripping wrecks or prehistoric sites is illegal and should not be condoned by anyone.

We have laws to protect our heritage against such pillage, but such laws are difficult to enforce. Three privately organized groups have recently taken steps against the continued desecration of wrecks and sites. One organization is called S.O.S. (Save our Shipwrecks), another is called P.O.W. (Preserve our Wrecks) and the third is the Ontario Marine Heritage Committee. S.O.S. and P.O.W. base their objectives in the education of divers through various certifying agencies, by promoting shipwreck conservation, and by organizing volunteer activities where needed. They have made a beginning, and with growing awareness comes growing concern. Ultimately, heritage awareness and preservation will result.

Editors Note to Underwater Archaeology in Ontario.

We contacted Ms. Janusas to let her know we were reprinting this article from her early days. Ms. Janusas also offered the following:

You can say….that MTCS has indicated that they will not address marine archaeology until they “clean up” land archaeology (Finnerty, DM, personal communication to S. Janusas when Pres. of APA). I continue to work in the business, and new technologies make things much easier than before. Ontario is still the only province in Canada that does not have more “lenient” laws regarding scientific diving, meaning that we are required to follow Min. of Labour regulations when it comes to diving (i.e. putting people in the water). We have many shipwrecks that predate those of the Erebus in the Arctic but marine archaeology remains a neglected part of our heritage….

Ms. Janusas has also indicated that she may give us all an update to this piece in the near future. What has changed, what technology has meant to underwater archaeology, and others. In the meantime, if you have anything to add to this piece, we’d love to hear from you.

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