By Dr. Robert S. Neyland, Naval History and Heritage Command Underwater Archaeology Branch Head
In 1996, underwater archaeology was officially incorporated into the U.S. Navy with the creation of a dedicated branch at the Naval Historical Center, which in 2008 became the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).
The development of NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) was influenced by a long list of prominent archaeological projects and a number of emergent issues that were, and still are, unique to Navy ship and aircraft wrecks. While the Navy’s ship and aircraft wrecks contain invaluable and irreplaceable historical information, they are first and foremost representations of the sacrifice U.S. service members have made for our country.
Important shipwreck discoveries such as USS Hatteras, USS Monitor, and CSS Alabama , emphasized an emerging need for the Department of the Navy to study, manage, conserve and curate its submerged cultural heritage. The then-Naval Historical Center was charged as the authority within the Navy responsible for the management of the Navy’s historic ship and aircraft wrecks. UAB was subsequently established in order to oversee the new duties required of the Navy in relation to submerged cultural heritage.
As technology and (resultantly) public interest in underwater wrecks have proliferated, the branch has grown from one federal employee in 1996 to a staff of six federal archaeologists/conservators with contractor support. The UAB program provides management of approximately 2,500 ship and 14,000 aircraft wrecks, develops policy, advises the Navy on underwater archaeology and historic preservation as it pertains to military craft, and conducts field research. It also maintains an active internship program. UAB’s archaeology and conservation laboratory conserves and curates artifacts from sunken military craft sites, carries out archaeological laboratory research, oversees an extensive loan program of archaeological artifacts, and provides numerous intern learning and research opportunities in conservation and collections management.
Today, UAB still addresses critical issues and informs important historical debate. As stewards of the Navy’s ship and aircraft wrecks, UAB also ensures compliance with federal laws and regulations, and develops, coordinates, reviews and implements historic preservation policy. That includes the revised regulations, 32 CFR 767, implementing the Sunken Military Craft Act (SMCA) permitting requirements for conducting intrusive activity on sunken and terrestrial military craft under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy which were published in the federal register Aug. 31, 2015. The regulations establish a permitting process for those interested in pursuing intrusive activities on Navy sunken and terrestrial military craft for archaeological, historical, or educational purposes as specified in the act and will take effect March 1, 2016.
The NHHC UAB program and its members remain committed to offering a broad information and educational programs in support of public understanding of the SMCA and its regulations, as well as the diverse and wide array of active research and site monitoring which our heritage, veterans and nation deserve.