Underwater Archaeology

Photo courtesy of Barbara Heath / University of Tennessee


Aerial view of an excavated house at Coan Hall.

Rising seas threaten priceless research sites in Virginia.

One area of science that perhaps has been an unanticipated victim of the melting of polar ice caps has been archaeology. In coastal Virginia, rising waters have lately become a major concern, threatening to destroy our common past.

Barbara Heath, an archaeologist at the University of Tennessee, is working at a colonial/Indian site called Coan Hall in coastal Northumberland County. “Many 17th-century English sites are adjacent to Indian villages,” Heath says. “These sites are particularly vulnerable to rising seas.” She says that within the last 10 years, archaeologists have been mobilizing to study and address the effects of climate change and come up with strategies to predict which areas are most at risk, to identify sites in those areas, and to set priorities about which sites we must try to protect, sample, or salvage.

Heath identifies the Chesapeake Bay, the Eastern Shore, and the Norfolk and Virginia Beach areas, along with the western shore of the Bay and the region’s major rivers and tributaries, as being at the frontline of climatic repercussions. Paleoindian sites occupied more than 10,000 years ago have been found eroding in Mathews County, she says, while the 1607 fort at Jamestown, the first successful English colony in the Western Hemisphere, was previously thought to have been completely lost to the James River. 

This work is slow, meticulous, and often costly. If a site is being actively eroded or is threatened, as in much of coastal Virginia, scientists have to come up with ways of saving as much information as quickly as possible.

Mike Barber is the former Virginia State Archaeologist with the Department of Historical Resources. He says that numerous sites along the shoreline hold significant information: “Barrier islands were occupied quite early in Paleoindian times, from around 17,000 to 12,500 BC, when the Bay was nonexistent, and the continental shelf extended outward.”

“The time to act is now,” says Barber. “We need to devise strategies to save the data which will be lost to the Bay and Atlantic.” Otherwise, he says, we risk losing “the whole realm of artifacts associated with everyday life, which tell the real story of the past.” 

This article originally appeared in our October 2020  issue.

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