David Mindell has developed technologies that launched deep-sea archeology, a new field of historical inquiry that is giving us a wealth of information about the human past that before was unavailable.

Mindell’s breakthrough, developed in collaboration with oceanographers and engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, lets researchers create 3-D topographical maps and photo mosaics of shipwrecks that lie so deep on the ocean floor that they are inaccessible to direct human contact. The information these images provide gives us a greater understanding about communications between cultures, shipbuilding, sea travel, trade and warfare in both the ancient and modern world.

The technologies are remotely operated high-precision navigation control and mapping instruments that function in waters to a depth of almost four miles. “A robot floats above the shipwreck, sends out a ping, and with great precision measures the time for the ping to come back,” says Mindell, associate professor of the history of engineering and manufacturing in the Program in Science, Technology and Society.


Because these shipwrecks have been out of the reach of treasure hunters, fishing nets or tides — the forces that destroy such sites in shallower waters — they are preserved moments in time, Mindell explains. “The ships came to rest at the bottom of the ocean, and nobody’s touched them since. In places like the Black Sea, where you don’t have wood-boring organisms, we have found upright ships just sitting on the bottom — not completely intact, but not very badly decayed.”

Mindell directs DeepArch, MIT’s research group in technology, archeology and the deep sea. DeepArch has been involved in the discovery and exploration of relatively recent shipwrecks, including two Civil War vessels that went down in relatively shallow waters — the USS Monitor and the Hunley, a Confederate submarine which was the first underwater ship ever to sink an enemy vessel. DeepArch aided in the discovery, three miles down in the Pacific Ocean, of the World War II aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, which went down during the battle of Midway. It also has been instrumental in the discovery and mapping of ancient sites.

With DeepArch’s help, explorers have uncovered two Phoenician ships laden with ceramic amphoras — the large two-handled vessels that held wine or oil — that probably were bound for Egypt or Carthage when they sank in the Mediterranean around 750 B.C. Off Skerki Bank, a body of water in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily, he helped researchers uncover the remains of eight ships, including five Roman trading ships, which date from 100 B.C. to 400 A.D. At a depth of 3,000 feet, they have been able to identify eight different types of amphorae, bronze vessels, ceramics from Southern Italy, iron anchors, tools, household items and cooking utensils.

“From the fact that these ships were on the high seas, you know that they were moving between cultures,” says Mindell. . “The remains can help us answer questions about the networks between cultures — how and what they traded, how technologies were distributed, and with the earliest sites, how that distribution related to the spread of writing.”


Mindell explains what they have learned from the Phoenician wrecks. “We know now that these people had a society that could manufacture and trade large cargos in uniform containers, which indicates a high level of market activity. We tend to assume that these market mechanisms originated at the earliest with the Roman Empire. We now have evidence that they probably have gone on a lot longer.”

Mindell feels that there are several specific roles that MIT can play as the field of deep-sea archeology moves forward. One is to help determine and develop the necessary technologies.

“Our group focuses on non-invasive sensing, so we can learn as much as possible from a shipwreck without ever touching it,” says Mindell. “But if someone does want to excavate, we want them to be able do so in a targeted way so they can disturb as little as possible.”

Another role is to determine how best to educate students. “Just training them as archeologists or engineers isn’t enough because archeologists don’t understand the technical problems and engineers don’t appreciate how to formulate historically worthwhile questions,” says Mindell. “We need a new kind of education for excavating a shipwreck.”

A third goal, he says, is to help the field determine the methodologies and the priorities. “When we started this in 1997, there were treasure hunters who were saying that the only thing you can do with a wreck in deep water is loot it. We’ve shown that you can do archeology in deep water to a high scientific standard. There is a real frontier here, and by defining it we will help protect these invaluable resources.”