Author Innes McCartney on how shipwrecks reveal history

Innes McCartney, author of The Maritime Archaeology of a Modern Conflict: Comparing the Archaeology of German Submarine Wrecks to the Historical Text, discusses how the study of shipwrecks can reshape our understanding of past events.

The maritime archaeology of modern shipwrecks can trace its formative roots back as least as far as the Cold War. Whereas early cases tended to focus on the need to explain why certain military assets had sunk and were largely secret, the investigative approaches adopted share much with the modern discipline. This altered in 1985 with the discovery of RMS Titanic. Alongside the deep cultural significance of this event came the popularisation of the discovery of iconic modern shipwrecks and many other cases followed.

In the popular imagination at least, wrecks of this type could confirm and demonstrate exactly what contemporary reports of their sinkings stated. In other words the wreck tends to function as a friendly witness and although interesting is largely incidental to the central historical tale of wreck and loss. In many ways this is synonymous with a broader perception that historical archaeology is little more than the handmaiden of history. This is however to fundamentally misinterpret the true interface between archaeology and text.

It is of course fair to say that much of the material culture of the 20th century is well understood and that therefore little can be learned by the recovery of artefacts from modern shipwrecks. Nevertheless these sites can significantly contribute to the understanding of events if the bodies of the wrecks themselves are subject to the forms of scrutiny which seek to go beyond the original historical depiction of the sinking.

The author has attempted to do this with the wrecks of the Battle of Jutland and elsewhere and is not alone in adopting this approach. However, even where it has been successfully demonstrated that modern shipwrecks can contribute to a more focused or nuanced version of how they were lost, such historical adjustments really only ever affect specific cases and their significance is easily forgotten. Nevertheless each case reveals the potential that studies in which the archaeology is genuinely seen as contributory (as opposed to merely corroborative) can reshape understandings of past events.

What then of the mass-produced vessel built and sunk in large numbers, such as the over 800 U-boats lost at sea in two world wars? Discovering, surveying and identifying German submarine wrecks in the Channel reveals that the historical record as compiled by the Allies in 1919 and 1945 had overlooked the true fates of over 40% of the wrecks found. These wrecks are mystery cases and have no historical provenance. They inhabit the same archaeological space as any unknown shipwreck of any era. It is the discipline of historical archaeology alone which must interpret their remains.

As specific cases, the odd mystery U-boat wreck is of passing historical interest. However when viewed collectively on the battlefield scale they become the vehicle by which it is possible to see inside the workings of the Allied antisubmarine effort in both wars. The actual historical texts describing these events are then seen as much for what they wanted to portray as to what they actually did depict. Even more revealing is how the mistakes in the texts were made, because it is those which ultimately reveal the failures of process within a system, the true character of the documents and ultimately the actual agendas of their compilers. This is but one small area where the truly contributory nature of historical archaeology lies.

What first attracted you to this area of study?

I learned to dive in 1988 and quickly became fascinated with shipwrecks. After a while I began to specialise in deep diving on previously unseen wrecks and at that time realised that I should be recording them for posterity. The U-boats proved particularly interesting because they kept showing up in places where the history books could not yield any clues as to which ones they were. Sometime around 1997 I decided to dedicate as much time as I could to researching, diving on and recording the U-boats with a view to one day completing battlefield-wide study, possibly for a PhD thesis. This is now completed and I am grateful to Routledge for publishing it.

In your research for this book, what surprised or challenged you the most?

The research constantly threw up surprises. In the first few years they mainly came from the wrecks, both in their distribution but also in the remarkable amount of detail one could glean from them. As the research grew and matured the surprises came increasingly from the interface with the historical record. I recall being particularly surprised when I learned about the deep-trap minefields of 1944-45, which answered so many questions. Equally surprising was the revelation that in WW1 Room 40 could not possibly track U-boat movements in the Channel and that it knew the Antisubmarine Division was fabricating the list of U-boat losses to boost its reputation, something the archaeology seems to demonstrate. As a completely new area of research, the challenge has always been to demonstrate that modern shipwreck archaeology can significantly contribute to the reshaping of the historical record, not merely corroborate it.

What are your three favourite books on maritime archaeology?

The most difficult question for me. Since so little work has been previously published my field of study, its influences have been very broad, including comparable battlefield archaeology studies on land. But I would say that three of the maritime archaeology books which I currently rate highly are: Gould,Archaeology and the Social History of Ships, Delgado, Lost Warships and Mearns, The Search for the Sydney - How Australia's Greatest Maritime Mystery Was Solved. In their own ways, all three books are wonderful.

Innes McCartney is a nautical archaeologist, historian, author and broadcaster. He obtained his PhD from Bournemouth University and is known for his work in using archaeological research to identify 40 new German submarine wrecks in the waters around the UK and Ireland. He has published in such places as the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, and SKYLLIS, The Journal of the German Society for the Promotion of Underwater Archeology.

  • The Maritime Archaeology of a Modern Conflict

    Comparing the Archaeology of German Submarine Wrecks to the Historical Text, 1st Edition

    By Innes McCartney

    Over the last 30 years, hydrographical marine surveys in the English Channel helped uncover the potential wreck sites of German submarines, or U-boats, sunk during the conflicts of World War I and World War II. Through a series of systemic dives, nautical archaeologist and historian Innes McCartney…

    Hardback – 2014-11-19
    Routledge Studies in Archaeology