A brief introduction to Maritime Archaeology

Women in Science: 10 minutes with a Maritime Archaeologist

2347378We spoke to Maritime Archaeologist, Alison James, about what inspires her in her work.

Alison James worked for Historic England between 2009 and 2018.

Can you give us a brief introduction to what you do?

I’m a Maritime Archaeologist at Historic England so I deal with the 52 protected wreck sites around the coast of England. They range from Bronze Age sites right through to 21st century submarines, from Northumberland down to the Isles of Scilly- so there’s a wide range of things to see. I deal with the licensing, so controlling dive access to the sites, but also their management. I often work with volunteer groups who are integral to protecting the sites.

What first got you interested in Maritime Archaeology?

I was quite lucky; I always knew what I wanted to do. I was taken on a school visit when I was 7 to a Romano-British farmstead on the Wirral, and there was a local professor of archaeology there. It was a light bulb moment; I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist too. It was only when I went to University at 18 that I realised that I could combine diving (which I had just learned to do, and loved) with the archaeology.

Alison on a dive. © Alison James

What skills are useful in your profession?

Well diving helps, but it’s not essential. There are many maritime archaeologists who don’t dive, as there is the lab based side of things as well, such as setting up the projects, doing research, and post excavation work.  I think really essential things are research skills, commitment and enthusiasm. It’s a very small world and commitment and enthusiasm can get you a long way, as can an ability to work with a wide range of audiences.

Do you have a favourite dive site?

I’ve got a soft spot for a site called Fenna, off the Isle of Wight which is a beautiful dive, also all of the wrecks in the South of Mull, which is up in Scotland. And of course the protected wreck sites, as they each have such an interesting story to tell.

What has been the best dive project that you’ve worked on?

That’s an easy one actually- it would be the London Wreck project. The wreck is smack bang in the middle of the shipping lane and it has all these container ships going past it. It’s a really horrible place to dive, with strong tides and it’s really dark. We knew that the site was high risk, and it was a real managerial challenge. But by being involved in the project, we’ve managed to do a huge amount on the site that I never thought would be possible. It’s been really rewarding.

Alison James, maritime archaeologist at Historic England with gun carriage from the wreck of the ‘London’ at Leigh-on-sea. © Historic England

What would you say to aspiring young women scientists?

Go for it. You can do anything that you set your mind to. I’m a maritime archaeologist but I’m from Derbyshire in the middle of the country- about as land locked as you can get. So I really feel that people can achieve anything if they set their mind to it.

Do you have like a research wish list or a particular ambition for the future?

Before I got very set on Maritime archaeology I did a masters in archaeology. My dissertation focused on Seljuk and Ottoman Turkish Ceramics, and I would really like to do a personal project based in the Mediterranean looking at the trade routes of Seljuk and Ottoman ceramics.

Who are your heroes?

My heroes are really the volunteers. They work on the wreck sites tirelessly, and some of them have been involved for 40 plus years. They’re on the site weekend after weekend, feeding information back to us completely unpaid and I think that they should be considered heroes for what they’ve done for maritime archaeology.

Alison (in sunglasses) and three friends all of whom are involved in maritime archaeology © Alison James

Why do you think that maritime archaeology is important?

As with any archaeology, it opens a real window into the past. As an island, ships and boats have really helped to define our nation, so it’s incredibly important to who we are now. A well as that, shipwrecks can be a real time capsule into the past in the way that perhaps some other sites aren’t. They represent a single unique moment in time when that ship sank. One of the best bits about maritime archaeology is the organic finds – the beautiful woods and leathers survive so well under water, so we get to see some really cool finds.

Have you got a favourite find?

I’m a huge fan of leather shoes from shipwrecks. They’re my favourite type of find, as I think they have such an intrinsic link to the person who wore it.

Conservator holding remains of a leather shoe which now has barnacles and sea material growing on it, Copyright Luke Mair/Chaos Photography

What’s your plan B – if you didn’t do this, what would you do?

Something like working with the public and volunteers, making a difference in some way. That or working in a school!

Why should we protect wreck sites?

By protecting wreck sites, we can start to tell their story to a wider audience. We can really get people to value, learn from and enjoy them in the way that I do when I get to dive the sites.

Further Reading

3 comments on “Women in Science: 10 minutes with a Maritime Archaeologist

  1. Rachel Prothero

    This is fab, how inspiring.

  2. Alison Harker

    What an inspiration- love the learning from the ‘deeps’- social history as well as the events around the list vessel. As someone who explored local creeks for rotting hulks, mainly fishing smacks and barges, this would have been a good career a few years back!

  3. Great intro. to a fantastic career / interest. Suggest a possible short video or PowerPoint presentation that can be made available to schools, careers advisors and Sib Aqua Clubs.

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