On the night of April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank, killing over 1,500 people, pulling the massive ship with everything inside under the dark waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Inside the Titanic was a bursting microcosm of life filled with a diversity of people, the remains of which still exist 2.5 miles under the surface. Being able to examine the artifacts left behind could provide an insight into life during that time as well as answer critical questions. Although the Titanic remained an important archaeological site to survey, underwater archaeology could not penetrate the depths of the ocean, – until recently.
It was coincidentally the sinking of the Titanic that allowed for its rediscovery and exploration. The use of sonar was developed partially to create safer methods of avoiding future hazards under the water. As technology developed the reach of underwater archaeology expanded. In 1985, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) towed an unmanned deep-sea vehicle carrying video and sonar on miles of cable behind their boat and was able, for the first time since its ruin, to bring images of the Titanic to the public. In the following years, small manned submarines were able to circle the ruins of the Titanic while archaeologists peered out through thick Plexiglas portholes. But these small glimpses of such a massive structure were not enough to provide enough detail and recording in such short trips, and even the unmanned vehicles only viewed select areas of the ship.
Experts believe that the Titanic will not remain intact for much longer due to rust and bacteria, making it a priority. But there were many other complications besides the difficulty of being able to create a full survey. The Titanic lay in international waters making it difficult to access legally, and other companies had collected artifacts from the Titanic and were putting these up for display or auction. Archaeologists argued that they may have not been properly recorded, and that the artifacts taken were selectively – seemingly only the first class items have been picked up, creating an impression that was not wholly representative. Furthermore, the removal of items caused concern that other items may have been moved from their original locations without any record of where and how they were found. The site also contains modern trash, including many of the weights the manned submarines need to drop in order to return to the surface, and the Titanic had already taken damage from submarines that had latched onto its rails in order to get closer.
In a multiagency* expedition in 2010 the obstacles were finally jumped. With the work of two autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), archaeologists were able to take video and make a 3-D rendering of the entire ship as well as the area around the ship in full detail, every artifact included. The complete rendering was a revolutionary step for underwater archaeology, and allowed archaeologists to finally ask and answer important questions about the Titanic.
*WHOI, the Waitt Institute, Phoenix International, NOAA, and the National Park Service
photos obtained from:
for a photo of an archaeological map made of the Titanic site:
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