Still Waters Run Deep

              On the surface, the calm exterior of archaeology is that of scrapping away at an already eroding mass of earth, with the hopes of revealing remnants of ancient pottery or jewelry. Contrary to Hollywood’s idea of archaeology and exploration, most people would be more incline to assume that the life of an archaeologist is lacking in glamour. However, within the profession there is still adventure to be found, especially by the likes of Joseph Zarzynski.

             Zarzynski is an archaeologist in the purest sense, studying and excavating the hardest to reach areas in search of answers to better understand previous life. Although the life of Zarr, as he is referred to by his friends and equally admirable crew, is not exactly the movie style action-adventure that is implied, it is picturesque. Bateaux Divers

              Zarr and his crew dive deep into Lake George here to better observe a long lost ship wreck, the 1758 Land Tortoise Radeau. Here really is where the beauty of an archaeological project may be found. It is where the mundane procedures of a respectful and well-thought out excavation meet the sheer excitement and wonder of identifying and examining this lost scene. The tedious process of safety procedures such as decompression stops and archaeological necessities like mapping the area culminate with the awe of investigating such a fantastic wreck to create something that everyone can care appreciate.

                What becomes attractive to those who can appreciate the archaeological significance of such a find such as archaeology students and Zarr’s fellow archaeologists is the history that is preserved through the rotting wood and creaky boards of the ship. It is said that what is written down in history is that which is meant to be known, but archaeological finds reveal that which people did not want future historians to discover. After much mapping together of the sunken radeau ship and research of what the area was years ago, Zarr’s team was able to successfully construct a mosaic of the structure, using photographs taken underwater alongside the more modern tool of Photoshop.

Radeau Mosaic

                The efforts of the crew eventually added to the formative historical analysis that the ship was purposefully sunk in an effort to preserve it for later use, but settled lower than intended. This was described in soldier’s journals, but the condition and fate of the radeau that was left was something that could only be exhumed through the scientific processes of archaeology.

                In addition to the sole scientific and historical benefits of such a feat, the archaeological project also displayed to the public the importance of such work. The general public of the Lake George Beach area now has a better understanding of their origins, and an enriched sense of identity with the addition of the wreck into the National Registrar of Historic Places. The undertaking of the archaeological excavation of the Land Tortoise ultimately served as a link between the archaeology of real life and movies, and of the mundane and fantastic.

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image 2 url: 2013. The Land Tortoise Underwater Preserve Site – NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 1 Oct 2013] 2013. Joe Zarzynski | Lake George Mirror Magazine. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 1 Oct 2013]. 2013. Shipwrecks: Lake George Radeau | Vince Capone Marine Science and Adventure. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 1 Oct 2013].

Sometimes You Have To Dive Right In.

When one hears the world archeology, (one unknowledgeable or untrained in the discipline anyway), images of Egyptian pyramids and cities filled with treasure buried in the jungle come to mind. But the real “treasure” of archeology of course, is what the artifacts that remain after a civilization is long gone, tell us about the culture and history of the people who left them behind, in ways that the written record simply cannot.

You may be surprised to learn that some archeologists never even put shovel to earth.   Joseph Zarzynski is just such an archeologist.  A soft-spoken, balding man with an infectious grin, he maps and explores the sea bottom.  Yet, the fascinating artifacts he uncovers rival anything found in a subterranean vault.Zarzynski

Zarzynski spoke with our class about his team’s investigation of sunken ships in Lake George, left behind during the French and Indian Wars of the 18th century. One must understand that Zarzynski and his team did not just arbitrarily decide to explore Lake George.   First they undertook a comprehensive examination of the history of that period.   Apparently, during that time period waterways such as Lake George were a source of transport and trade as well as home to a variety of military encampments.  Often vessels were purposely sunk in the shallows ahead of the coming winter to prevent opposing troops from utilizing or burning them. Then, using the scientific method, they formulated a research question, decided the best way to explore their question, acquired and processed data, and then analyzed and interpreted the data.  Their chosen site still was not easy to explore due to the many administrative headaches they encountered in acquiring permits for their dives.

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What they ultimately found in Lake George was an intact radeux, (French for raft), which had been intentionally sunk. However the depth of the lake that area was too deep to make raising the raft feasible in the 1700s.  Thus, this  52 foot long,  82 foot wide floating gun battery known as the “Land Tortoise” was still there to be found in 1990; the earliest known warship of its kind.  The “raft” contained no gold doubloons or six headed statues, and in fact, the ship was never even raised, but it contained provided priceless information about the time period when it was created.

blog photo 4 The discovery of the Land Tortoise lead to the creation of the 1987 Abandoned Shipwreck Act, and the New York State Submerged Heritage Preserves. In fact, in 1998, the Land Tortoise was declared a National Historic Landmark.   Better than any book about the period, the maps and photographs captured by Zarzynski and his team, bring alive that time in history when Lake George was a site of war instead of a picturesque tourist destination. That is what real archeology does.


A Science Underwater

Think of the opening scenes of the classic 1997 movie Titanic. Better yet, watch the first minute of the trailer and note the portrayal of the researchers.

Titanic Movie Trailer

As the happy people of 1912 wave goodbye, the present day “archaeologists”—who are really just adventurers—sink to the depths of the underwater site where the Titanic rests. While this movie wildly promotes the stereotypes about archaeology, it did get some things right. The point of archaeology in general is to understand more about the past and to learn the stories of individuals without the bias of historians. If we can understand the life of the individual, we have a better grasp on what the average life was like for a certain group of people.

This movie is incredibly well known. If this portrayal is so influential as to how people think about underwater archaeology, shouldn’t there be more accuracy in the representation of such an important method in understanding our past? In comparison to the presentation we heard by Joseph Zarzynski on the underwater archaeology of the Land Tortoise colonial warship in Lake George, NY, Hollywood and real-life archaeologists have two completely different ideas of what underwater archaeology is.

In the movie, there is one goal for the researchers on the boat: finding the necklace. Just like every representation of archaeology in the media, the science is skewed to be more attractive. The greedy archaeologist has no greater ambition than to find the incredibly rare diamond. The viewers will now think archaeology is about discovering lost ships and finding hidden treasure that has been lost for years. In reality, archaeologists rarely find anything big. Archaeology is most useful for the smaller parts of life. An archaeologist could spend hours just surveying the land and figure out what the past uses for that area were. While this seems insignificant, it could help a farmer better use the land for his agriculture or tell a town about the schoolhouse their ancestors all attended. Archaeology can improve the lives of people today.

This is a picture of the sunken Titanic taken by Dr. Robert Ballard on July 5, 1985.

This is a picture of the sunken Titanic taken by Dr. Robert Ballard on July 5, 1985.

When archaeologists first started looking at the Land Tortoise, they had a procedure to follow. Since they would have to dive down 100 feet to do anything and they only had around 16 minutes for each dive, they had to plan out what was to be accomplished. There were no impulsive dives like the ones to search for the necklace in Titanic. Zarzynski and the other archaeologist also practiced minimally invasive archaeology. This means they weren’t tearing the boat apart in order to learn more about it, but preserving it for others to observe and learn from. They didn’t move any of the planks and certainly didn’t break into the boat to find an artifact they weren’t even sure was there. They spent most of their time underwater mapping out the Land Tortoise and taking photos to put together a visual of what the ship looked like when it was initially sunk. The real treasure of this archaeology is gaining an understanding of how the past of this boat relates to our present and sharing that with the public.

Works Cited:

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“New York.” Archaeology Program. National Park Service, n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <>.

Ditch the Hiking Boots and Grab Your Goggles: The Challenges of Underwater Archaeology

Conducting archaeological research is a difficult process. Natural decay, catastrophic events, looters- all present challenges that must be navigated by the archaeologist. Now try doing it a hundred (or more) feet underwater.

Underwater archaeology is, as the name would suggest, archaeology practiced underwater, and it presents a whole new set of problems for archaeologists. For one, underwater sites like sunken ships are difficult to access, requiring experienced divers and diving equipment (and, in some cases, submarines). Tidal flows and poor weather may also render some sites inaccessible at certain times.

Secondly, divers have limited oxygen and cannot stay

Underwater archaeologist Joseph W. Zarzynski makes a measurement of the starboard view hold on the 1758 Land Tortoise radeau shipwreck, a British warship from the French & Indian War.

Underwater archaeologist Joseph W. Zarzynski makes a measurement of the starboard view hold on the 1758 Land Tortoise radeau shipwreck, a British warship from the French & Indian War.

underwater for very long, making repeated dives necessary in order examine and record the entire site. Extensive planning and choreography of the dives beforehand, therefore, is of the utmost importance. Even when carefully planned out, recording an entire site can take many years, as in the case of the Land Tortoise Radeau.

Another challenge of underwater archaeology is the temperature of the water. Though they wear wetsuits (or drysuits in colder water) divers’ bodies will eventually get cold as they give off heat to the surrounding water. This, along with having fixed amounts of air, limits the amount of time that divers can spend observing and recording underwater sites.

Drawing to scale while underwater

Drawing to scale while underwater

Limited visibility can also present a huge problem for underwater archaeologists. Scale drawing and photography are both popular techniques when it comes to recording underwater sites, but poor water clarity distorts photographs and can make it difficult for divers to record their observations. However, the use of photoshop to combine photographs of the site taken at adjacent points has helped to overcome some issues of visibility underwater. The use of video cameras can also help provide a more accurate picture of the site.

After sorting through the many issues that arise during the planning and conducting of underwater archaeological research, archaeologists are faced with the difficult task of preserving underwater sites and artifacts. Conservation of underwater sites is both expensive and time consuming, but without proper care artifacts may deteriorate or be damaged accidentally by members of the public. In many cases, it is inconvenient or impossible to remove underwater artifacts, and archaeologists must work to ensure that the site is protected from looters and other sources of potential damage.

From start to finish, underwater archaeology is a mess of logistics problems, though

Many artifacts, including currency, have been recovered from the Titanic.

Many artifacts, including currency, have been recovered from the Titanic.

when conducted properly, it can yield amazing finds. A popular underwater site that immediately comes to mind is that of the RMS Titanic. The Titanic lies over 12,000 ft under water, making it extremely difficult to access and conserve, but many artifacts from the wreck have been recovered and used to educate the public about the lives of the ship’s passengers. In this way, despite its many challenges, underwater archaeology is a thrilling and rewarding sphere of archaeology that can teach us much about the people of the past, while simultaneously breaking down the ever-persistent Indiana Jones archaeologist stereotype.

Works Cited:

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Ashmore, Wendy, and Robert J. Sharer. “How Archaeology Works.” Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. 64. Print.

Cantelas, FJ; Rodgers, BA (1997). “Tools, Techniques, and Zero Visibility Archaeology.” In: EJ Maney, Jr and CH Ellis, Jr (Eds.) Diving for Science…1997. Proceedings of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (17th Annual Scientific Diving Symposium).

Durrani, Nadia. “Underwater Archaeology: George Bass.” World Archaeology. 7 Nov. 2005. Web. <>.

Hamilton, Donny L. “Basic Methods of Conserving Underwater Archaeological Material Culture.” Web. <>.

“The Challenge of Working Underwater.” Wisconsin Historical Society. Web. <>.

“The Importance of Underwater Archaeology.” Wisconsin Historical Society. Web. <>.

“The Lost Radeau: A Shipwreck in Lake George.” All Over Albany. 5 Aug. 2009. Web. <>.