Underwater archaeology minor offers undergraduates rare opportunity

The University of Rhode Island’s underwater archeology minor offers students the opportunity to explore the underwater world before entering the field or furthering their studies in graduate school.

Rod Mather, chair of department of history and professor of maritime history and underwater archaeology, believes that this is a unique minor for URI due to its interdisciplinary courses and its availability to undergraduate students.

“There are not many universities in the country where you can do underwater archaeology and even fewer where you can do underwater archaeology as an undergraduate,” Mather said.

Chair of URI’s department of sociology and anthropology Dr. Kristine Bovy believes this minor provides students with a vast background of information critical to understanding the study. 

“The underwater archaeology minor is a great example of an interdisciplinary field– you need to combine history, anthropology, oceanography, geology and more to truly understand underwater and coastal archaeology,” Bovy said.

Bovy, who teaches archaeological method and theory, coastal archaeology and intro to archaeology, gives students a background in anything from analysis to history to archaeological theories. 

“In my courses, students learn a lot about the indigenous peoples of the Americas and around the world,” Bovy said. “I find that most of my students know more about the archaeology of Egypt than the Americas, so I love to open their eyes to archaeology that is right here and give them opportunities to appreciate the history of this continent prior to 1492.”

While it is interdisciplinary, overall, students must take 18 credits for the minor. Mather said that many students decide to pair scuba diving to the minor where some of the credits can overlap. By studying scuba diving too, students have the ability to complete field work in underwater archaeology. 

“Students do that because they like the idea of actually doing underwater archaeology, not just learning about underwater archaeology,” Mather said.  

Mather teaches a capstone class for the minor which follows the entire process of a career archaeologist. This class covers everything from research design to interpretation analysis and gives students the ability to find underwater archaeological sites, survey and record what one finds at the bottom of the ocean, excavate and interpret the analysis. 

According to Mather, he and his students often uncover exciting finds during their studies, especially through a field-work class he teaches in Bermuda. 

“It is very hands off, you go out and every day and work in the reefs,” Mather said. “We look for shipwrecks, we study shipwrecks, we map shipwrecks, we excavate shipwrecks, so there are projects that are ongoing and every year we go back and we do a little bit more.” 

Mather believes it is good for undergraduate students to have the opportunity to study and experience underwater archaeology as an undergraduate as many students discover that the minor and experience is not what they had envisioned.  

While some students have a transformative experience that helps them decide to pursue underwater archaeology for their careers, Mather said others also come to realize that it is not for them, which he believes is beneficial to know as an undergraduate.  

“A lot of people have misconceptions about what underwater archaeology is,” he said. “A lot of people that are interested are really interested in treasure hunting or collecting artifacts that they find on the bottom of the ocean, but that’s not archaeology.”

According to Mather, archaeology is the scientific study of the past using physical remains. Many hours of data collection and analysis takes place, not just scuba diving through a shipwreck. Mather explained that as an underwater archaeologist, he and those in the field with him preserve, protect and study sites underwater and treat the historical sites as they would on land.  

Bovy said that while underwater archaeology is a pertinent field, it is being threatened by climate change. 

“Sadly, many coastal archaeology sites are threatened by sea level rise due to global climate change,” Bovy said. “We need archaeologists who are trained to investigate and/or protect these sites when possible.”