From AC 2nd to… Nautical Archaeology

When students and parents ask “What can you do with a History major?”, we often struggle to respond simply because there are so many possible career options open. For example: meet Christopher Olson ’87, a nautical archaeologist based here in Minnesota.

My guess is that most of us hear “archaeology” and see deserts in our mind… What is nautical archaeology, and in particular, how does one practice that discipline in a place like Minnesota?

Christopher Olson surveying the Minnesota River
Christopher during a November 2011 sonar survey of the Minnesota River

Nautical archaeology is a specialty within maritime archaeology, which is the study of human interaction with bodies of water through archaeological study of maritime culture that includes vessels, shore facilities, cargo, docks, etc. Nautical archaeology itself examines the specifics of vessel construction and use. Minnesota with its lakes and rivers is a vast area of maritime activity, and as a result a lot of cultural material was left behind.

My wife and I are licensed archaeologists by the state of Minnesota, and any work we do with Maritime Heritage Minnesota (MHM) is reported to the Office of the State Archaeologist. The areas we work in (river and lake bottoms, shorelines) are considered state land and anything we find is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources (if the site/artifact is less than fifty years old from date of abandonment) or the Office of the State Archaeologist (if the site/artifact is fifty years or older from date of abandonment)….

To date we’ve done work on a number of wreck sites. These include the Andy Gibson (an 1884 Mississippi Riverboat wreck), an 1879 barge, two 1925 hopper barges, a 1920s dredge, three steamboat boilers and numerous small craft dating from 1900 to 1989. Before we started surveying Lake Minnetonka had six known shipwrecks. MHM has added thirty more to that list. Some sites, like the Andy Gibson, are partially embedded in the shoreline so there was a terrestrial excavation element to them. MHM is also involved in the yearly monitoring of the remains of the 1874 gunboat USS Essex in Duluth. This wreck is significant because it is the only known surviving work of famed 19th century clipper ship builder Donald McKay. MHM is also involved in transcribing the logbooks of that ship and making them available online. Surprisingly we’ve only found one fish house so far.

You’re also a maritime historian. Talk a bit about how you understand the relationship between history and archaeology — and what makes them distinctive fields of study.

Archaeology is studying human history (and prehistory) from the analysis of excavated artifacts and other physical remains. History, or historical records, consists of written accounts such as diaries, newspaper articles, letters, etc. They can also be non-narrative in nature, like bills of sale, receipts, vessel registrations, licenses, enrollments, etc.

Nautical and terrestrial archaeology entails more physical labor obviously, but there is an historical research element to the work. In fact more time is usually spent in the library than out in the field, the ratio usually being that for every one hour of fieldwork there is three hours of lab work or research.

We often find that past records are incomplete or inaccurate.  Public records that were deemed of little value were sometimes destroyed to make more storage space. In other cases the records were just lost. For example, the Dept. of Conservation was the entity that managed boat licenses and registrations starting in 1959. When that department was turned into the Dept. of Natural Resources in 1971, all the boat license records between 1959 and 1971 were lost, which can make wreck identification much more problematic….

With these examples of incomplete historical accounts in mind I see archaeology as not only complementing written history, but in some cases the archaeological remains are our only record of the past, including the recent past.

Did your interest in nautical archaeology — or maritime history — start during your time as a Bethel history major?

I’ve been interested in maritime history and nautical archaeology since I was young. Reading about archaeological projects in National Geographic would feed that interest. But it was a Bethel history professor (Neil Lettinga) who gave me the nudge to pursue maritime history and archaeology as a career. Because of him that summer I enrolled in an introductory field school on underwater archaeology in Port Royal, Jamaica. That started me on the path that eventually led to grad school and an MA in
Maritime History & Nautical Archaeology [at East Carolina University].

What about your work at Bethel prepared you well for graduate school?

What the Bethel History Dept. did to prepare me for graduate school  was to get me familiar with the process of historical research. It’s often tedious work, but it is immensely satisfying when you find information that sheds light on the history of a shipwreck or maritime-related site. Also, if the subject is something you’re interested in, it doesn’t always feel like work.

Finally, what’s your favorite memory of life as a Bethel history major?

My favorite memory at Bethel as a history major was a 1987 incident that happened when taking Neil Lettinga’s European History class. One day he asked if anyone knew the Preamble to the Constitution. The whole class sang the Schoolhouse Rock version to him.

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