Surveying the Titanic

Deep-sea exploration illuminates the ruins of the Titanic

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.

A view of the Titanic and surrounding area from the 3-D rendered map created in the 2010 expedition.

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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4 thoughts on “Surveying the Titanic

  1. You mention in your blog post the difficulties researchers experienced in accessing the Titanic given that it occupies international waters. This reminded me of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Cultural Heritage, which took place in 2001. This convention aimed to provide countries with guidelines for the treatment of submerged cultural material and, like your post, addressed issues including deterioration, commercial looting and research issues in ambiguous zones. Conference materials even specifically reference the Titanic, noting that despite the damage incurred against the site, “the UK, Canada, France and the USA are now cooperating toward enforcing protection of the wreck” (7). While the conference established guidelines and agreements, it did not concretely impact any ownership decisions or definitively alter zones. As a result, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of the international gathering. In regards to underwater cultural material and archaeological sites, what role does policy and maritime law play in the protection of these sites? Can such sites be simultaneously secure and accessible for study?

    For more information on the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Cultural Heritage, visit:

    • Policy and law have a critical place for the preservation and scientific exploration of archaeological sites. Already legislation is necessary to untangle the complicated lines between cultural importance and preservation as well as scientific and historical interest. When cultural material is present in international zones, the boundaries become blurred and the site becomes difficult to control. These sites, like the Titanic, remain especially vulnerable to those who are more interested in the value (whether monetarily or historically/ scientifically) than recording artifacts properly and keeping the Titanic preserved. This is where International legislation is able to play a huge role in aiming to make the Titanic both secure and accessible. “The R.M.S Maritime Memorial Act of 1986” was the first big step towards this goal. This agreement laid down the beginnings of the international laws to meet these goals. This was further refined in the “International Agreement” (in 2004) which incorporated France, Canada, the UK, and America into protecting the Titanic while also keeping it available for study (This may be the product of the “cooperation” the UNESCO Convention mentioned). The agreement laid down strict regulations and protocols so that all research done on the Titanic will be within guidelines that are not only agreed upon by all parties, but that encourage research while providing protection.

      The R.M.S Maritime Memorial Act of 1986:
      International Agreement:

  2. After decades of disturbance and what some would call looting, is archaeology at the Titanic really about the night of 1912 or is it really about reactions to what happened that night?

    • The archaeology at the Titanic is in a way both about the night of 1912 as well as the public reaction to the sinking of the ship. No matter how popular the ship was, archaeology still seeks to address the factual nature of the Titanic. There have been many surveys of the site in order to find out the details surrounding the sinking of the ship. There has also been research concerning the artifacts found aboard to gain insight into life back then and on the Titanic. This factual archaeological search into the Titanic is driven by scientific and historical curiosity that is crucial for any archaeological site. However, a lot of the interest in the Titanic is generated by the public’s reactions to the sinking of the famous “unsinkable ship”. The sinking of the Titanic has become popularized through media and its tragedy has become an international event to be memorialized through countless books, movies, museums, and other forms of media. But the Titanic is only one in a long list of shipwrecks. It is not the only historically significant shipwreck, and it certainly is not the worst, but public interest demands more on the Titanic. While this attention on the ship allows for much research to be done on it, it also detracts from the importance of archaeological research into other important shipwrecks. While the Titanic does require archaeological research because it is an important cultural and historical site, it should not get this attention on fame alone.

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