Maritime archaeology, nautical archaeology, and underwater archaeology are all terms that describe the field of archaeology that focuses on underwater and shoreline sites. Some maritime archaeologists specialize in prehistoric sites while others are interested in ship construction details. At the water’s edge there are countless archaeological sites representing buildings and other evidence of human occupation that are now completely or partially under water due to erosion or sea level rise. These sites often lure terrestrial archaeologists into the water for what some have termed “wet archaeology.”
The term underwater archaeology is a broad category that includes all types of archaeological sites that are under water; historic and prehistoric, shipwrecks and buildings, basically anything that falls into the category submerged cultural resources (or underwater cultural heritage, UCH, the term used by UNESCO). Maritime archaeology is often defined as “the scientific study of the material remains of humans and their activities on the sea,” while nautical archaeology focuses on naval and maritime technology, especially the construction of ships, boats and the associated fittings and equipment.
According to UNESCO, “Underwater cultural heritage” means all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years such as: (i) sites, structures, buildings, artefacts [sic] and human remains, together with their archaeological and natural context; (ii) vessels, aircraft, other vehicles or any part thereof, their cargo or other contents, together with their archaeological and natural context; and (iii) objects of prehistoric character.