Marine/Maritime/Underwater Archaeologist


Archaeology is the study of human history and culture through the examination of remains of past human activities. Such studies help to explain not only where and when people lived on the earth, but also why and how they lived. Marine or underwater archaeology is the study of culture(s) related to human interaction(s) with the sea (as well as lakes, rivers, and wetlands). It includes the study of shipwrecks, cities and harbors that are now submerged, coastal dwellings, agricultural and industrial sites along river, bays, and lakes, and underwater debris sites (waste, garbage and other items including ships, aircraft, munitions and machinery).

The deep sea can be considered the largest “museum” of human history, however, it remains largely unexplored. Approximately 5% of the deep ocean has been studied. Marine archaeologists are employed by universities and colleges, local, state, and federal agencies, historical societies, museums, and restoration programs, and in private archaeological consulting firms. Their work, reconstructing the history of the world’s oceans and coastlines, impacts current day coastal management and planning decisions. Much research on underwater archaeological sites is also done to comply with state and federal legislation that protects prehistoric and historic-period resources. Many laws and regulations require that underwater properties be located, inventoried, and studied before they are impacted or destroyed by development.

Education Requirements

Estimated Salary

  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years, BA/BS)
  • Master’s degree (generally required, 2+ years)
  • PhD (preferred but not necessarily required; obtaining your Ph.D. makes it possible to apply for research grants, receive permits, and gain university support)
  • SCUBA certification and fieldwork-based training is highly recommended

For salary information, please visit the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

Tasks and Duties

Marine archaeologists may have a variety of responsibilities depending on the specific nature of their job. These could include:

  • Fieldwork, which may include the study of:
    • Wrecks (shipwrecks; aircraft)
    • Submerged indigenous sites
    • Places where people once lived or visited that have been subsequently covered by water due to seismic events and/or rising sea levels
    • The remains of structures created in water; and refuse or debris sites where people disposed of their waste, garbage, and other items such as ships, aircraft, munitions, and machinery
  • Managing archaeological resources
  • Conservation, documentation, evaluation, and recovery of historical sites and/or artifacts (many laws and regulations require that sites be located, inventoried, and studied by qualified archaeologists before they are impacted or destroyed)
  • Laboratory research
  • Teaching (formal and informal settings)
  • Curating [museum] collections; designing exhibits

Knowledge and Skills

Basic skills might include:

  • Field observation and sampling
    • Field research settings can range from tropical habitats to locations in extreme environments such as that in the deep sea
    • Shipboard and/or boat handling experience may be useful; familiarity with oceanographic technologies/equipment
    • Scuba diving skills (including scientific and/or deep wreck diving) and/or familiarity with scuba equipment and protocols may be useful
      • Individuals performing deep, archeological dives must be in good health and possess physical strength
  • Computer skills
    • Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
    • Global Positioning Systems (GPS)
    • Computer modeling; Mathematical modeling
  • Ability to work effectively with others as well as independently. As they carry out their work, marine archaeologists often coordinate with other historians, planners, conservators, and museum curators
  • Ability to effectively communicate ideas/findings/discoveries (to colleagues, managers, policymakers, and the general public)

May need knowledge in:

  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology
  • Biology
  • Boat handling
  • Coastal law and policy
  • Coastal zone management
  • Environmental planning
  • Geology
  • Field survey methods and analytical techniques (e.g. excavation, abstract preservation, restoration, etc.)
  • Marine Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  • Mechanics
  • Scientific communication
  • Underwater acoustics
  • Underwater photography/imagery
  • General knowledge about ROV mechanics, sonar, and other technologies

Basic skills may also include:

  • Research and analytical skills
    • Experimental design and application
    • Data organization, processing, and analytics
    • Willingness to work long hours in a laboratory or in the field
    • Some positions may require specialized laboratory skills.
  • Written and oral communication skills
    • Preparation of technical reports and presentations
    • Authoring research articles
    • Drafting grant proposals
  • Interpersonal skills
    • Ability to cooperate and collaborate with others
    • Public interactions and public speaking (ability to explain things to diverse audiences)
    • Ability to teach and mentor undergraduate and graduate students (university-level teaching positions)
    • Coordination and supervision of research personnel

Connections to Underwater Acoustics

Visibility at underwater sites may be poor, because of sediments or algae in the water and a general lack of light at depth. Side scan sonar or multi-beam sonar may be used to image an underwater site or to target a specific area on the seafloor. Side scan sonar instruments are towed behind ships and often called towfish or tow vehicles. Pulsed signals are transmitted in narrow beams from each side of the tow vehicle and reflected back from the bottom and objects on the seafloor. The tow vehicle has sensitive hydrophones, which receive the returning sound. The signals from the hydrophone are sent to the ship for processing and an image is made showing the strength of the returned sound over the area the tow vehicle was sending the sound. Side scan sonar is very sensitive and can measure features on the ocean bottom smaller than 1 centimeter (less than 1/2 an inch). Typical uses of side scan sonar include: looking for objects on the seafloor (sunken ships, pipelines, downed aircraft, lost cargo), detailed mapping of the seafloor, investigation of seafloor properties (grain size, etc) and looking at special features on the seafloor like underwater volcanoes.

Multibeam systems can have more than 100 transducers, arranged in precise geometrical patterns, sending out a swath of sound that covers a distance on either side of the ship that is equal to about two times the water depth. Since they acquire dense sounding data both along the ship’s track and between the track lines, they can provide 100% coverage of the seafloor. All of the signals that are sent out reach the seafloor and return at slightly different times. These signals are received and converted to water depths by computers, and then automatically plotted as bathymetrric maps. The data acquired by multibeam systems are much more complex than single-beam surveys; this means higher resolution is possible, but also that more involved signal processing is necessary in order to interpret the data. Multibeam sonar is used to locate topographical features on the seafloor such as sediment ridges, rock outcrops, shipwrecks, and underwater cables. Ships also use this technology to avoid areas that would endanger their vessels or gear, to find fishing grounds, and to precisely map the seafloor.

Related Careers

  • Anthropologist
  • Archaeologist
  • Archivist
  • Environmental Planner
  • Geographer
  • Geoscientist
  • Museum Curator
  • Ocean Engineer
  • ROV Pilot
  • Sociologist
  • Underwater Diver


Society for American Archaeology, What is Archaeology?
NOAA, OceanAGE Career Profile – Marine Geoarcheologist, Beverly Goodman
Inner Space Center, Deep Sea Archaeology
Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology, Careers
Australian Institute of Marine Archeology, What is Maritime Archaeology? 
Wikipedia, Underwater Archaeology
Marine Insight, What is Marine Archaeology?, Interview with an Underwater Archeologist