Although shipwrecks, and particularly human remains, have generated great interest among the general public, the specific study of human and animal remains found in the maritime environment have rarely been researched as such. The uncertain legal status of human remains found in the sea as well as their special ethical status makes this type of archaeological material different. However, the environment, although prone to currents and sediments tends to preserve bone well as they are rapidly covered by sediment. The richness of information that can be retrieved from both human and animal remains is such, that it seems maritime osteoarchaeology should be a subject in its own right. On one hand, human skeletal remains from underwater sites tend to belong to a ‘catastrophe sample’, a site where all individuals died over a short period of time and share a common cause or manner of death (Mays 2008, 127). Shipwrecks for instance generally provide a specific and non-random sample of a population: where are often males who share distinct occupations of activities for which they have been chosen from the civilian population (Mays 2008, 127). Such assemblages provide great opportunities to study a specific part of the population of a precise period. Moreover, the faunal remains which are often collected from such sites can provide invaluable information on the life on board these vessels, for instance; how people lived, and how they ate, how they preserved large quantities of food for long journeys, etc. (Schonfeld 2014).

Underwater Preservation of Bone tissue

The marine environment can both be suitable and unadapt for the preservation of bone remains. When humans or animals unfortunately perish at sea, water disintegrates soft tissue rather rapidly, leaving the bone itself exposed to its environment. Agents such as the movement of the sea can damage the remains on rocks or other hard surfaces. Currents also disperse assemblages or move certain of its elements making it incomplete and inaccurate. Furthermore, current-driven sediments tend to smooth the surface of the bone which can erase crucial information such as bone shape, pathology, gnawing marks, human modifications (butchery, burning marks, etc.). Finally, the organic components of bones, the collagen, can be attacked by bacteria that feed on the protein of the bone (Jones 2011, 100).

Nevertheless the low temperature, low oxygen and almost neutral pH of most marine context favour bone survival (Mays 2008, 125). Therefore, when rapidly buried by sediment, the degradation of the bone remains can dramatically be slowed down. The quicker the remains are buried the better preserved they can be. Additionally, it is important to point out that the taphonomic process underwater differs from bones buried on land (Turner-Walker 2008). On land, micro-organisms tend to infiltrate the bone’s interior which leaves the surface of the bone relatively well preserved if the soil is not too acidic. On the contrary, in the marine environment, bacteria tend to attack the periosteal or outer surface, leaving the deeper microstructure unaffected. This difference is an important one as it preserves the part of the bone where the DNA is stored (Mays 2008, 125).

Human Remains

Human remains have been found on several shipwrecks, their status, as archaeological material, has raised many issues from an ethical and legal point of view; these are discussed below. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that such assemblages represent incredible archaeological evidence on the people who were on board these vessels but also about the time they lived in and the difficulties they had to face. Perhaps the best example of human remains from shipwrecks is the assemblage from the Tudor warship, Mary Rose (1509-1545) studied by Ann Stirland (2005, 515-544). It is thought that around 415 individuals were on board the Mary Rose when it sank, of the possible 380 fatalities, the remains of 179 were recovered, representing around 45% of the entire crew. This assemblage represents the largest war burial from post-medieval and Tudor England. The study of these remains allowed an insight into this period but also about the individuals concerned. Information such as number of individuals, sex, age at death, stature, morphology, dentition, pathology, DNA, as well as activity and occupation were all able to be assessed and provided a true insight into the life of those men before and during the war. The study of pathology showed marks of malnutrition, rickets, osteomalacia, scurvy, anaemia, infectious disease, fractures, osteoarithritis, etc. The population from the Mary Rose comprised a group of men who were mainly young, strong and fit. Many showed that they had suffered from diseases related to starvation and food deficiency in childhood. The skeletal development of some of the crewmembers suggested that some were professionals; bow men, gun crew, mariners, etc.

Studied on the human skeletal remains of the Mary Rose are on-going and have provided a unique picture of the 16th century in England. Moreover, other shipwrecks have uncovered human remains, such as from the Vasa and the Kronan (Sweden), which help rebuild the life people lived in the past.

Ethics & Legislations

In archaeology, human remains have always held a special status, as they are the remains of people rather than object. This particularity has made them a sensational subject of study and interest for archaeologists and the general public. The treatment of human remains therefore calls for higher legal and ethical considerations than those of other types of archaeological material (Mays 2008, 123). Though these legal and ethical considerations are well established and precise for human remains found on terrestrial sites, the picture is a lot less clear for underwater remains.

Sovereign Immunity

Article 1: Under customary international law, naval warships, state vessels, aircraft and associated artefacts enjoy protection through Sovereign Immunity. This means that they are not subject to the jurisdiction of any other State (Department of Culture Media & Sport/MOD 2014).

Protection of Military Remain Act (1986)

The Act’s primary objective is to prevent disturbance of military remains, irrespective of the presence of human remains or the cause of the loss. It is wide ranging and has the potential to control many archaeological excavations. The regulatory framework of the Act works upon the concepts of ‘Protected Places’, ‘Controlled Sites’ and the prohibition of certain excavations.

Protected Places are the remains of any aircraft which crashed in military service or of any vessel designated (by name, not location) which sunk or stranded in military service after 4th August 1914. Diving upon such remains is permitted, provided no tampering or removal of objects, etc. occurs (English Heritage 2004).

Controlled Sites are designated areas comprising the remains of a military aircraft or a vessel sunk or stranded in military service less than 200 years ago. It is an offence within a controlled site to tamper with, damage, move or unearth any remains, enter any hatch or opening or conduct diving, salvage or excavation operations for the purpose of investigating or recording the remains, unless authorised by licence (English Heritage 2004).

Annex to the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage

Rule 1: All traces of human existence underwater become o cultural, historical or archaeological interest when they have been submerged for at least 100 years.

Rule 5: The unnecessary disturbance of human remains should be avoided during archaeological investigations (Dunkley 2011, 22).

Burial Act (1857)

Although the 1857 Burial Act does extend to the 12 nautical mile territorial limit measured from low water mark, the way in which the act is worded seems to refer to bodies which have been deliberately buried (Dunkley 2011, 21). Therefore the act does not take into consideration remains which have been buried by natural processes or which are found over the 12-nautical mile limit. Nevertheless, the core guidelines involved in the treatment of human osteological remains all agree on, one, the respectful treatment of human remains and second that they should not be disturbed for good reasons (English Heritage/Church of England 2005; Historic Scotland 1997; O’Sullivan et al. 2000).

Treatment of Underwater Human Remains (Mays 2008)

- As on a terrestrial project, if human remains are expected to be found, a human osteologist should be present from the planning stage of the project to advise on the steps to be taken.

- Ideally, if the remains are underwater, the osteologist should be a diver and personally supervise the recording and recovery of human remains during the excavation as on any land site.

- Human remains, if articulated should be recovered as individual in the limit of the possible. Special care should be taken when trying to reunite disarticulated bones into individuals.

- The 3-D location of the remains, whether articulated or disarticulated, should be recorded as it could inform on the position of crew members during the sinking of the vessel. However, it is important to bear in mind that marine movement and even the sinking of the vessel would have shifted people and objects.

- The post-excavation treatment of the remains should start by washing the bones in fresh water to remove the salinity (e.g. it look four weeks under a water cascade for the remains of the Mary Rose (Stirland 2000, 66)).

- The bones should be allowed to dry fully and slowly.

- The remains should then be marked, bagged, boxed and stored conformed to the established guidelines already in use for on land excavated human remains (English Heritage/Church of England 2005, 43).

- Finally, a usual osteological assessment should be undertaken and if needed, their analysis, publication and archiving following established guidelines (Mays et al. 2004; BABAO 2005; English Heritage/Church of England 2005; DCMS 2005).

Faunal Remains

Although the number of excavated wrecks has increased, faunal remains are rarely the main area of focus (Migaud 2011, 287). Archaeologists have generally concentrated on aspects such as vessel construction, ordnance, cargo or even human remains (Schonfeld 2014). Moreover, depending on the date of excavation, faunal remains, which might not seem as fashionable, may not have been published, recorded or even recovered. Fortunately, in recent years zooarchaeology has become a more established discipline. As the important role of animal remains from archaeological sites has become recognised, it is evident that such evidence is beginning to be recorded in maritime contexts in as much details as on land (Schonfeld 2014, 4). Shipwrecks, often described as ‘time capsules’ provide a unique type of archaeological evidence as they represent a specific moment in time which stopped dramatically (Pompeii on land). This particularity of shipwrecks applies to a lot of the material found on site, including the faunal remains. For instance, faunal remains from terrestrial sites usually represent food refuse from pits or have been scattered around settlement sites. Animal bones from shipwreck however, generally represent stored food which would have been consumed during the voyage, or in some rare cases, food in preparation. Most leftovers would have been thrown overboard (Schonfeld 2014, 4). Thus, faunal remains from shipwreck allow a deeper and more unique understanding of people who lived on board, surviving weeks or even months on end (Schonfeld 2014, 5).

In some instances, specialist reports have been produced such as, the astonishing study carried out by Coy and Hamilton-Dyre (2005) on the faunal remains from the Mary Rose (1509-1545) provided essential data on the diet and provisioning of the vessel and its crew. Nevertheless, although smaller studies on the faunal remains from shipwrecks have occasionally been published, Phillipe Migaud (2011) was the first to approach maritime zooarchaeology as a specific area of research. Although Migaud mostly focused on expedition vessels from the 17th and 18th centuries, his paper was the first assessment of the presence of animal remains from a large range of shipwrecks. Migaud brought together the general information provided by the reports and other sources on individual shipwrecks (2011, 284-5). Schonfeld (2014) provided analysis of the faunal remains from eight shipwrecks from the Late Medieval and Renaissance period which provided comparisons by vessel types (merchantmen, warships and expedition vessels), over time and compared to neighbouring countries. This study brought additional information on the lives of the people who lived, and sometimes died on board these ships. Moreover, the comparative study also brought additional information on the events which shaped a period that saw radical technological developments, economic crises and social changes (Schonfeld 2014). Maritime zooarchaeology has a true potential which has only been scratched so far. The increasing interest in all materials provides a better base for investigations.

Clara Schonfeld (United Kingdom) graduated from the University of Southampton with an MA in Osteoarchaeology and an MA in Maritime Archaeology.


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