Underwater archeologist

Professional context

Underwater archaeology refers to the set of methodologies and techniques of scientific investigation that allow archaeologists to work underwater in maritime, river, lake, lagoon and hypogeic contexts. Underwater archaeology is part of maritime archaeology, a discipline concerned with reconstructing man's relationship with the sea over the centuries through the material evidence he left behind. Thus, it deals mostly with shipwrecks, but also with submerged structures such as harbors, fishponds, shipyards, ship shelters, etc., without chronological limits and their relationship to the environment, thus, for example, their use as markers to study changes in sea level and movements of coastlines. The underwater archaeologist is also concerned with evidence left by man in lakes, such as perilacustrine settlements from prehistoric times, shipwrecks in lakes, rivers or lagoons, and submerged settlements in lagoon settings.

Underwater archaeology was born with Nino Lamboglia in the 1950s, working on the wreck of the Roman ship at Albenga (SV), when the archaeologist was the first in the world to become aware of the potential of studying amphora cargoes for reconstructing trade in the Roman period.

While Lamboglia, however, never participated directly in underwater activities, as he was not a diver, U.S. archaeologist George Bass, in 1960, was the first archaeologist to understand the need to direct activities on the sea floor himself.The creation, first, by Lamboglia, of the Centro Sperimentale di Archeologia Sottomarina di Albenga and then, by Bass, of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), linked to A&M University, was a spur to the rapid development of the discipline in not only the Mediterranean but soon the world.


In the Mediterranean, the countries that have become better organized in this area in recent years are, first and foremost, France, which can count on a specialized service of the Ministry of Culture (Département des recherches archéologiques subaquatiques et sous-marines, DRASSM) also equipped with a ship equipped for archaeological research, researchers on staff in the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), and numerous groups of well-organized voluntary associations. Specialized conservation institutions are also present in all Spanish regions and in Croatia. Israel has a long tradition and can count on a research center in maritime studies at the University of Haifa. Greece and Turkey have moved only recently, but in the latter country the INA, founded by G. Bass, has operated with results of great scientific importance and visibility.

Italy, after a pioneering period that saw it play a leading role until at least the 1980s, has not yet overcome the crisis of Lamboglia's death. Safeguarding activities are left to superintendencies that are not specialized in this area although in Sicily, by contrast, the Superintendence of the Sea is operational. This year, however, a MIBAC Superintendency of the Sea was established, at least on paper, based in Taranto. Research, all things considered, is carried out by a few university professors and other research figures. Some specialized companies operate under the scientific direction of superintendencies or always of universities.


The underwater archaeologist generally operates from equipped boats or pontoons. The equipment used is mostly simple surveying and photographic documentation equipment. However, lightweight metal frames may be used for surveying. Excavation, i.e., the removal of sediments from the archaeological context, is carried out by means of water or air sorbons. The first consists of a motor pump that, through a hose, delivers pressurized water into a pipe in which a suction condition is created from one end (mouth) to the other (discharge). The second consists of a large pipe near the mouth of which air is pumped by a compressor, which, by creating a vacuum, allow bottom sand to be sucked from the site. Both systems are used at limited powers to allow gentle removal of sediment from the archaeological context. Lifting balloons can be used to recover objects.

All activities can and should be carried out directly by archaeologists, even with the help of simple operators, while heavier operations, such as the installation of a sorbonne or the recovery of a heavy artifact, are usually done by underwater technical operators (OTS). At least one archaeologist must still be present at the underwater operations that are entrusted to his or her direction also on the basis of the UNESCO Convention on Underwater Archaeological Heritage, ratified by Italy and thus implemented in our country's legislation. However, scientific direction may be entrusted to other research institutions, such as the University, based on excavation concession requests forwarded to the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (MiBAC).


Photogrammetric documentation with frame

Graphic documentation by means of frame

Excavation with water sorbonne

Educational paths

Training, of course, goes through universities, where specific bachelor's and master's degree programs have been activated in the past. Now those who intend to study in this field can follow the teachings offered within degree programs in archaeology or cultural heritage. Universities, such as Ca' Foscari in Venice, Salento, East Naples, Catania, Sassari, and Udine, organize research and excavation activities, in the course of which students can train themselves adequately.

There is no shortage of introductory courses to operation in underwater archaeology organized by various cultural or sports associations. Among the best are the courses of the Nautical Archaeological Society (NAS) (organized by the Reitia association in Conegliano), which propose in Italy a teaching formula imported from the Anglo-Saxon world that lends itself well to the initial training of students. 

Preventive archaeology regulations limit the activity, at least in archaeological (underwater) impact assessment operations, to archaeologists who have graduated from a Graduate School or hold a doctorate in archaeology.


A&M University offers the most prestigious master's program in the field, but excellent master's programs are also organized at the University of Southamton, the University of Haifa and Flinders University.

In Italy there is a lack of ad hoc funding to adequately equip university teams even with vessels. Also chronic is the lack of laboratories for the initial intervention and restoration of artifacts from the water that require immediate, time-consuming and expensive treatments. Collaboration with other better-equipped institutions with which to share logistical aspects would be useful.


Employment opportunities

Working in the field of Italian underwater archaeology are mainly the following:

  • operators and scientific staff of the superintendencies and MiBAC;
  • students, researchers and teachers of universities;
  • professionals;
  • technicians and archaeologists from specialized companies and cooperatives.

The only state employees classified as underwater operators are some technicians from MiBAC and the Sicily Region's Department of Culture.

Professionals and firms work on behalf of administrations or private companies under the scientific direction of local superintendencies. Widespread is the figure of the VAT-registered professional archaeologist who collaborates and directs firms of divers or firms of associated professionals. Less frequent is the formula of the enterprise or cooperative of divers with their own archaeologist.


Article from:

Beltrame C. (2020) L'archeologo subacqueo. Identikit professionali degli Operatori Scientifici Subacquei. La collana del faro, Il Pianeta Azzurro, 2/2020: 10-13.

The author:


Carlo Beltrame


Associate Professor of Archaeological Research Methodology at Ca' Foscari University of Venice where he teaches Maritime and Underwater Archaeology. Member of the scientific and technical committee of AIOSS.

He is mainly concerned with methodology of wreck study, without chronological limits, but also with shipbuilding and trade in ancient times. He is coordinating two Interreg Italy-Croatia projects as a partner. He has organized many underwater missions on ancient, medieval and modern wrecks in Italy and abroad. He has more than a hundred publications to his credit, including in indexed journals and some books published by international publishing houses.