Maritime Cultural Landscapes – A National Symposium

Maritime Cultural Landscapes – A National Symposium

A new look at an old problem: how to connect the disparate elements of maritime activity both on land and offshore into one commonly understood cultural whole. Despite being a maritime nation, American’s struggle when connecting the dots between shore side and maritime activities. This is true to for the managers and planners responsible for managing, protecting and presenting our shared maritime cultural heritage who work within the regulatory environment of current environmental and historic preservation law. The struggle comes from policies and practices that fragment the totality of the maritime experience. And from rules written from a land-based rather than ocean-based perspective.

The symposium

In October xx archaeologists, geographers, cultural resource managers, consultants and academics from across the US gathered with staff from the Wisconsin Historical Society to rethink the preservation of Maritime Cultural Landscapes. The two-day symposium was sponsored by the National Park Service, the Wisconsin Historical Society, NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The goal, to explore and develop some consensus around the growing idea that to protect, preserve and present maritime cultural heritage in the United States a new model of “interpretation” is needed.

So what is a Maritime Cultural Landscape?

The term, Maritime Cultural Landscapes, is meant to signify the totality of human interaction with the marine environment both onshore, offshore, above water and below, and the exploitation of the environment for economic – and I would argue – recreational gain. Using the idea of “landscapes” the idea is that we can define a zone of human activity which then “signifies human utilization (economy) of maritime space by boat: settlement, fishing, hunting, shipping and its attendant sub-cultures, such as pilotage, lighthouse and sea-mark maintenance” (Westerdahl,1992).

Cultural Landscapes

What is a Cultural Landscape? They are areas of human activity with the natural environment that are modified over time, repurposed to further human needs. Guidance documents from the National Register program of the National Park Service states that “They are composed of a number of character-defining features which, individually or collectively contribute to the landscape’s physical appearance as they have evolved over time. In addition to vegetation and topography, cultural landscapes may include water features, such as ponds, streams, and fountains; circulation features, such as roads, paths, steps, and walls; buildings; and furnishings, including fences, benches, lights and sculptural objects.” Maritime Cultural Landscapes extends the idea
by focusing less on the architecture of place and more on human interaction over space and time to encompass human activity on the waters and oceans of the world.

Why a new model?

Cultural resource managers, archaeologists and historic preservationists have increasingly come to realize that lighthouses and historic shipwrecks are just one element of a larger maritime cultural landscape of human interaction in need of documentation and protection. The new model seeks to embrace all of human activity related to and impacted by the world’s oceans. And in so doing, brings into focus two type of landscapes in need of study, management and preservation:

  1. Contemporary and historic maritime activities,
  2. Submerged paleoenvironments.

Impact of new technologies

Cultural resource managers working at the federal, state, tribal and local level have increasingly sophisticated technologies as their disposal. As a result, these tools are increasing our understanding of human activity both on land and below the water. This has led to an increased awareness that it is now possible to identify areas of human activity on landscapes flooded some 15,000 years ago as the waters began to rise with the end of the last Ice Age. These technologies are now allowing archaeologist to search for identify potential village sites offshore in Long Island Sound, the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Coast.

Impact of energy development in the United States

Concern for submerged cultural resources has grown over the last few years due to new technologies for harvesting energy from the world’s oceans. New ocean drilling technologies and energy harvesting technologies (wind, wave and current) have put pressures on federal and state resource managers to seek management strategies (or mitigation) to protect submerged heritage resources including not only historic shipwrecks, but also the paleo-landscapes of ancient peoples who walked the lands now submerged by the melt waters of the last glacial period. The concern – the impact of submerged gear on the ocean’s bottom damaging paleo-environments and the cultural artifacts left behind.

Submerged cultural resources and US federal law

Energy exploration and harvesting, in offshore waters of the United States, operates within a complex web of technical and legal constraints. Just as development on land is bound by state and federal laws that govern development and exploration of natural resources – so too are ocean energy companies. Within this regulatory environment, the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA 1969), the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA 1966), and Executive Order 11593 – the Protection and Enhancement of the Cultural Environment (1971) also play a role. As part of the permitting process, offshore energy developers are required to submit survey results documenting the impacts on the seafloor of their explorations. These activities include drilling sites, anchorages, pipelines, moorings and other infrastructure required for energy harvesting. Should survey results reveal that seafloor developments will negatively impact submerged cultural resources, energy developers are often required through mitigation to re-site their development activities to decrease impact on submerged cultural resources.

Symposium Results

The two days in Madison brought individuals and scholars are working on the issues of managing and protecting the cultural heritage encompassed by Maritime Cultural Landscapes. The symposium shared new research and site reports, new mitigation models and exploration of the challenges of making maritime activities and shore side industrial activities “fit” the current rules and regulations related to the National Register of Historic Places. Sessions bounced from site specific to the speculative encompassing research from the Inland Seas to the Coasts. And a good debate was had and national conversation started. And that was the point. To bring practitioners and policy makers together to shape a new future for the management of America’s maritime heritage.

Further Reading:

“The maritime cultural landscape” by Christer Westerdahl in The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (1992ma 21.1: 5-14

Old and New Threats to Submerged Cultural Landscapes: Fishing, Farming and Energy Development BY Amada Evens, Anthony Firsth and Mark Staniforth in Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites, Vol. 11 No. 1, March, 2009, 43–53

National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA 1969), the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA 1966), and Executive Order 11593 – the Protection and Enhancement of the Cultural Environment (1971)


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