Underwater Archaeology

Underwater Archaeology

DHR is tasked with the preservation and protection of underwater historic property, as defined in §10.1-2214 of the Code of Virginia. As a part of DHR’s Division of State Archaeology, the Underwater Archaeology Program is tasked with the stewardship of submerged and maritime archaeological resources throughout the Commonwealth. While a specific focus is placed on archaeological resources within the waters of the Commonwealth, the Underwater Archaeology Program often works with private individuals and organizations to assist with the identification and preservation of maritime archaeological sites and artifacts. The program also works with other state agencies to assist with management of public cultural resources. Additionally, the program serves as an outreach arm of DHR to educate Virginians and visitors about the rich maritime past of our state. 

State Underwater Archaeologist
Virginia has a richly diverse maritime heritage, beginning with the first inhabitants of present-day Virginia, some of whom lived near our plentiful bays, rivers, and streams. These first people found abundant food along the coasts, including fish and oysters, and they developed tools and techniques for harvesting them. They built boats from hollowed out logs and used them to explore, fish, and hunt.The first European colonists arrived on Virginia’s shores in their large sailing ships and they, too, discovered the bounty in coastal and riverine waters. They built small boats for exploring and fishing, and most of the earliest settlement was along the James River. Even today, Virginia’s maritime heritage is evident in many places, including our coastal settlement patterns, the huge shipyard in Newport News, and the largest naval base in the world, Naval Station Norfolk.Lying on Virginia’s submerged lands are countless thousands of archaeological sites representing every period of occupation from the first Virginia Indians to the present day. A portion of the first fort built at Jamestown eroded into the James River, and the York River holds more than a dozen ships sunk during the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the last major battle of the American Revolution. In other areas lie the remains of Union and Confederate ships from the Civil War. Other types of underwater sites include prehistoric sites that were inundated during a long period of sea level rise; the remains of piers, wharves, ferry landings, bridges, and other waterfront structures; and countless prehistoric and historic sites that formerly existed on land, but have become submerged due to storms, erosion, and sea level rise.The Department of Historic Resources works with federal, state, and private partners in an effort to locate, study, and protect its underwater historic property. Removing objects from underwater historic sites requires a permit from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission
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Frequently Asked Questions

Virginia has roughly 2.14 million acres of land covered by water. Such lands include coastal bottomlands in the Atlantic Ocean, the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, tidal rivers and creeks, and upland rivers and their tributaries. For purposes of underwater archaeology, we will use the term “state-owned bottomlands”. Two distinctions should be made, public land within tidally-influenced waters and submerged land above the fall-line not affected by the tide. 

Waters of the Commonwealth are defined in §62.1-81 of the Code of Virginia as: “(a) Any stream or that portion of any stream in this Commonwealth which prior to June 21, 1932, has been declared navigable by any unrepealed statute of this Commonwealth, or (b) any stream or that portion of any stream in this Commonwealth, the bed of which is owned by the Commonwealth, or (c) those parts of streams or other bodies of water in this Commonwealth which either in their natural or improved condition, notwithstanding interruptions between the navigable parts of such streams or waters by falls, shallows, or rapids, compelling land carriage, are used or suitable for use for the transportation of persons or property in interstate or foreign commerce, including therein all such interrupting falls, shallows or rapids, and also any stream or part thereof in this Commonwealth other than those above mentioned in this subdivision in which the construction of any dam or works as authorized by this chapter would affect the interests of interstate or foreign commerce, or (d) that portion of any river or stream flowing between the high-water mark on the Virginia shore and the low-water mark when such low-water mark constitutes the boundary line between Virginia and another state.” 

In tidal waters, generally recognized as those waters eastward of the fall line, the Commonwealth asserts ownership of those lands below the low water mark. That mark is the average of the low water boundaries for the past 20 years. 

For nontidal waters, the Commonwealth asserts that subaqueous bottomlands extend up rivers and streams with a drainage basin of greater than 5 square miles, or with a mean annual flow of greater than 5 cubic feet per second. 

Not all submerged bottomlands are owned by the Commonwealth. If subaqueous land was granted to an individual prior to 1792 in the part of Virginia draining to the Atlantic Ocean and that deed description has remained intact to the present, the owner of that parcel may claim such lands as private property. The same is true for lands granted prior to 1802 in the portion of the state draining to the Gulf of Mexico.  

To read the full Virginia Subaqueous Guidelines, visit here. 

Maritime archaeology is the study of human interaction with water that includes a wide array of activities including transportation, shipbuilding, fishing, port-related activity, and settlement patterns. While the term underwater is often used, that definition is largely methodologically related. Instead, the term ‘maritime’ is often more suitable to encompass human activities on, under, and by waterways. Thus, maritime archaeology is the study of our past through the discovery and examination of material culture relating to the oceans, lakes, river, and even streams. Nautical archaeology is a further subdivision of the field of maritime archaeology that focuses on the design, construction, and operation of historic vessels. Some maritime archaeologists study submerged landscapes that were inundated by rising sea levels. Ancient landforms, now underwater, may contain archaeological sites from thousands of years ago. Other maritime archaeologists may specialize in regional or temporal histories such as a specific conflict or a geographic region. 

Methods used by maritime archaeologists include site-recording and excavation, similar to terrestrial archaeology, and may include a variety of survey techniques, such as sonars, magnetometers and remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs), which allow maritime archaeologists to see what remains on the floor of a body of water over a vast area. When examining a site, many types of examination may be used such as dendrochronology (dating wood using tree-ring identification), taxonomic sampling (determining species of plants from their archaeological remains), micro-faunal analysis (examining samples from discrete features on a site that may contain exoskeletons of ancient bugs and vermin), geological examination (to determine the source of a cargo), and dozens of other types of specialized analysis. 

Since artifacts are non-renewable resources, we ask that you please leave them in place. Often, an artifact’s location is valuable for its context to other nearby artifacts and features. A collection of artifacts may comprise an archaeological site. Disturbance of the site can prevent us from learning about our own past, and the fascinating past of the Commonwealth. Removal of historic materials from state-owned bottomlands is not permitted without a valid permit from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. For more information on the Exploration Permit program, click on the link here. If you locate historic materials within state waters, you may contact DHR’s Underwater Archaeology Program at 804-482-8088.

The mandate of Virginia’s Underwater Archaeology Program includes inventorying and documenting submerged cultural resources located in state waters, as well as working with citizens to identify and protect submerged sites of archaeological significance. Virginia’s underwater archaeology team has investigated a variety of sites across the state that range in type and time period. Such sites include: 

  • A wreck believed to be the schooner Esk (1888) located on the Eastern Shore. 
  • The Nansemond Ghost Fleet, a collection of sunken historic vessels believed to represent Suffolk’s oystering fleet from the early 1900s. 
  • Revolutionary War–era shipwrecks in the York River that were sunk as part of the Battle of Yorktown. This site became the first underwater historic property listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
  • Maritime resources along Virginia’s rivers include hundreds of sites related to early navigations and industry, including the James River & Kanawha Canal. 

To learn more about Virginia’s underwater exploration permits, visit here.


Contact Us

State Underwater Archaeologist

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