Bringing the Past to the Present for the Future

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Underwater Archaeology: Ontario's Marine Heritage

(reprinted courtesy of the Ontario Ministry of Culture-click on the link above to be redirected to their website)

Bordering on the four Great Lakes to the south, James and Hudson Bay on the north, and containing thousands of lakes and rivers in between, Ontario is blessed with an abundance of water.

The history of the exploration, settlement and commerce of Ontario from the earliest First Nations peoples to the present day is characterised by the important role that its waterways played. First Nations peoples travelled, traded and lived along our province's waterways for many millennia. The early European explorers arrived on and used these same routes. The early sailing vessels they built were used in the fur trade or for military purposes. However, as Ontario's commerce grew with its population, so did the role of commercial shipping. In the absence of railways and roads, the early development and trade of our province was dependant on its lakes and rivers. A century and a half ago it could have been said that Ontario was "Mother" maritime province.

The early First Nations villages and camps, the forts, harbours and early sail and steam vessels have all disappeared. Fortunately, they have left us with a record of their passing in the form of archaeological sites. Of all the environments within which these sites occur, none provides the degree of preservation afforded by the cold, fresh water of Ontario's lakes and rivers. The Great Lakes, with their many well preserved shipwreck sites, have become one of the greatest "outdoor" museums of shipping history in the world.

Ontario's submerged cultural resources are valuable to the Province on a number of levels. There is of course the archaeological and historical value of sites which, because of their state or preservation, offer information and understanding of the past and interpretative opportunities for museums not provided by land sites. Because of this preservation, shipwreck sites attract thousands of recreational SCUBA divers every year. Sports diving is fun and challenging. It is a multi-million dollar industry in Ontario. Sports diving also supports a thriving dive chartering industry with spin-offs for hotels, camp grounds, restaurants and other local businesses.

When SCUBA equipment became widely available for recreational use in the late 1950's the looting of shipwrecks in the Great lakes became endemic. Souvenir hunters and wreckstrippers can seriously degrade or destroy both the historic and commercial value of a submerged site. Some newly discovered shipwrecks have been reduced from pristine time capsules to stripped hulks in as little as two weekends.

The marine heritage conservation movement in Ontario has adopted a site conservation philosophy of "no artifact removal".

In spite of excellent preservation underwater, artifacts can deteriorate rapidly when exposed to air unless they are given extremely expensive conservation treatment. Also most divers do not have a sufficient degree of training in marine archaeology to allow them to accurately record artifacts before removal and to retrieve them without damage. By protecting the wreck in place, with associated artifacts, the entire value of the ship is maintained. Exceptions may be made if artifacts must be removed because they are endangered, or for research and interpretative purposes, but only when a conservation plan is in place.

The Marine Heritage Conservation Program works closely with volunteer organisations such as Save Ontario shipwrecks to stop the destruction of Ontario's submerged sites through a balanced strategy of persuasion, programs and regulation. Education and training form a fundamental part of this strategy. For more information about Ontario's programs to protect Ontario's marine heritage, please contact staff of the Marine Heritage Conservation Program in Ottawa.