Recent NAS member and second year University of Southampton student Deanna Cunningham shares how her eyes were opened during last week’s online Conservation of Marine Finds course. See what she discovered here...

With cabin fever lurking just beneath the surface, luckily the NAS have pulled through by continuing to offer up engaging courses virtually including the Conservation for Marine Finds course that I attended last week. Whilst it would have been great fun to try some of the maritime conservation methods myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the brain break from the constant bombardment of pandemic news.

The new “normal” for a lot of us is to do our learning and working from the safety of our own homes - so when I received an email giving the opportunity to do a Maritime Conservation Course with the NAS, I signed straight up. As a second-year undergraduate at the University of Southampton, I have completed a couple of modules on maritime archaeology and post-excavation conservation but never had the two combined, up until now.

The course was set up by Peta Knott, the Education Manager of the NAS. The intention was to teach the Maritime Archaeology Masters students an applied course on the conservation and recovery of environmental material and artefacts from the marine environment. Though luckily for me, when the course went online, the invitation was extended to students, and lecturers alike.

The participants joined from their own homes (one person from as far as Barbados) via the online program ‘GoToMeeting’. A group of brave specialists who had never given a talk in such a format approached the challenges of online teaching with ease, each of them bringing a different element in studying underwater heritage.


One of the main points that must be considered when learning about shipwrecks is waterlogged wood and how it survives (or not in some cases). Wood is a natural food source and suffers damage on a macroscopic level (marine wood borers) and a microscopic level (bacteria). The image displays typical decay patterns, which leave behind voids, that then fills with water and allows the wood to retain its shape.


We kicked the day off with Angela Middleton, a conservator who works for Historic England. She led her introduction with the aptly named ‘First aid’ for Maritime Finds, a talk covering everything from taking the artefact out of the water to packing and transporting the objects at the end of the process.

Ruth Pelling (Senior Archaeobotanist, Historic England) followed with her lecture on botany and its importance in a wreck site context. Using the case study of the Mary Rose, which I am sure most people are familiar with, Pelling gave a detailed overview of the sorts of information we should expect to gain from carefully taken samples of pollen, insects and plant remains. For example, in the hold of the ship they found evidence for: plums, cherries, grapes, walnuts, coconut, pepper and more. Which in turn gives us a better idea of the kinds of foods available during the 16th century.


The title slide from Ruth Pelling’s lecture on plant remains illustrating just what we can learn from the remains.


The next talk was given by Polydora Baker (Senior Zooarchaeologist, Historic England) on the zooarchaeology of maritime sites and I must admit that this is not an area I know anything about – until now. Animal bones in the underwater environment reveal a lot about a ship, from the quality of food cargo for trade/eating to its food preparation and consumption. The talk really opened my eyes to the possibilities of what sorts of information can be gained from animal bones and related material.

My favourite talk came next. Angela Middleton was back in the middle of the screen with a more detailed explanation as to the sorts of conservation techniques used on artefacts from underwater sites. The most fascinating part being how conservators deal with concretions. These strange solid masses come about when an iron object corrodes in reaction to water, but this corrosion builds up in layers and layers until it incorporates other artefacts in the vicinity. The most notable concretion was found on the wreck of the Northumberland. The team X-Rayed as well as used a CT scan to see inside the concretion and the University of Southampton’s engineering department were able to make an amazing graphic to display what was in fact a bilge pump. The use of technology to me was captivating and I hope one day we get the chance to go and see such conservators in action.


This image represents the concreated pump (the two pictures in the top right corner) found on the Northumberland wreck.


Our next talk was presented by Francesca Gherardi (Material Scientist, Historic England). As a BA student, I very rarely take modules that require too much scientific equipment and this talk made me sorry for that fact. Who knew there were so many different machines to look at so many different aspects of an artefact? A wide array of questions can be answered when using scientific techniques such as: what it is made of, where did it come from and how was it created.

The final talk of the day was given by my fellow University of Southampton attendee, PhD student and NAS Tutor Jack Pink. He delivered a presentation on why students of all ages (like me) should join the NAS. From educational programmes and qualifications to field work and skills days, the NAS has it all to offer young maritime archaeologists looking to get a foot in the door by gaining CV experiences as well as simply for the sheer enjoyment.

The course introduced me to a different face of maritime archaeology, where the focus and work lay solely on a single object and its story rather than looking at the story of the full assemblage. I have not done many courses with the NAS, but I am now more determined than ever to get involved and take all the online as well as outdoor learning opportunities that I can.

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