"The Sea is the Largest Museum in the World"

When you consider there are an estimated 15,000 archaeological sites off the coastlines of the Atlantic Ocean, this quote from archaeologist Salomon Reinach makes a lot of sense. In Brittany (France), searches have brought to light some of this incredible heritage from the pages of the history books which had previously sunk without a trace.

By Adramar

The Shipwreck (1772) by Claude-Joseph VernetNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Spotting the signs of shipwrecks

Along the coast, there are many signs of shipwrecks—you just need to keep your eyes peeled. Clues like an anchor decorating a roundabout, a cannon pointing toward the sea, or a painting of a shipwreck can point an archaeologist in the direction of a potential maritime tragedy that they can investigate, perhaps leading to the discovery of a shipwreck.

Archive relating the sinking of the privateer frigate Aimable Grenot (2012-08-31) by Teddy Seguin & ADRAMARAdramar

Diving into the archives

It is possible to find clues to the whereabouts of old ships that sank by looking through old documents and books. Descriptions of ships sinking sometimes make specific reference to the ship's name, and the place or even the rock where they met their demise.

How to do with all this sand? (2019-01-01) by François-Xavier LageyAdramar

See the unseen

Being submerged and often covered by sand and sediment, underwater archaeological sites are hidden from view. Underwater archaeologists have various tools allowing them to detect anomalies on the seabed.

Launching of side scan sonar and magnetometer from Hermine-Bretagne (2009-01-01) by Teddy SeguinAdramar

Launching the sonar and magnetometer

Geophysical instruments allowing the detection of anomalies on the seabed are towed from the rear of the boat.

Side scan sonar image of the Chariot archaeological site (2009-01-01) by ADRAMARAdramar

Sonar image of the archaeological site of Le Chariot

On this sonar image, we can make out not only the ripples of sand on the seabed, but also any anomalies. In the center of the image, the anomalies are in fact cannons lying in the sand.

Sonar operator performing geophysical data acquisition (2009-01-01) by Teddy SeguinAdramar

Sonar operator collecting data

An operator continually checks and analyzes the data gathered by the sonar.

Side-scan sonar image of the Laplace wreck (2009) by ADRAMARAdramar

Sonar image of the wreckage of the frigate Laplace

Without having to send a diver into the water, the sonar can obtain a lot of information about the layout of the site on the seabed. Here, the shipwreck is tipped over and split in two.

Sonar image of the wreckage of the frigate Laplace

We can even make out the shadow of the propeller at the top right.

Diver archaeologist at work on the site (2005-07-15) by Teddy Seguin & ADRAMARAdramar

Searching underwater

Underwater archaeologists study the past through physical remains, in the form of remnants of human activity found at the bottom of the sea. Their job is the same as that of a regular archaeologist, except the conditions are different since they have to work underwater.

Launching of a diver from the ship Hermine Bretagne (2005-07-22) by Teddy Seguin & ADRAMARAdramar

Diving from the Hermine-Bretagne boat

Diving in is part of their job, so underwater archaeologists have no choice: They have to get wet!

Installation of the grid on the site (2005-06-25) by Teddy Seguin & ADRAMARAdramar

Setting up the grid at the site

The first stage of a search is to set up the grid at the site by physically dividing the site into squares, providing a spatial point of reference for the entire search

Underwater vacuuming at the La Natière wreck site (2004-08-09) by Teddy Seguin & ADRAMARAdramar

Clearance with the help of an underwater vacuum cleaner

Underwater archaeologists use an underwater vacuum cleaner to remove the sand and sediment covering the site.

Registration of remains on the La Natière site (2003-07-31) by Teddy Seguin & ADRAMARAdramar

Reporting clues on a board during a dive

Each piece of information, each clue must be noted down. During a dive, a simple board, laminated graph paper, and a pencil are sufficient.

Video recording during the excavation (2005-07-15) by Teddy Seguin & ADRAMARAdramar

Photo and video documentation on site

Photo and video documentation on site

Swaddling a pulley before it rises to the surface (2003-07-14) by Teddy Seguin & ADRAMARAdramar

Protecting an object before bringing it to the surface

This 18th century pulley has traveled through time protected by the sand covering it. Even the rope is still in place! Every precaution therefore needs to be taken to bring the object up without damaging it.

Pewter tubs and plates (2007-07-20) by Teddy Seguin & ADRAMARAdramar

Remarkable preservation of objects

Underwater archaeologists have a remarkable opportunity: Objects made from organic materials (wood and leather, for example) are preserved in the sediment for hundreds or thousands of years, whereas in soil, these objects rot and are therefore very rare.

Object brought to the surface (2007-07-13) by Teddy Seguin & ADRAMARAdramar

Bringing archaeological objects up to the support vessel

Extracting an object from the seabed is always a delicate task. Once on board, the item is taken care of using preventive preservation measures. 

Excavating underwater (2008-01-01) by T. Boyer / ADRAMARAdramar

Searching underwater

Learn about the different stages and actions necessary for a successful underwater search.

A magnifying glass study of archaeological objects (2004-06-14) by Teddy Seguin & ADRAMARAdramar

Underwater treasures?

In Brittany, thousands of objects from different eras and different places of origin have been discovered at underwater archeological sites. Each of these objects is a piece of evidence, a fragment of our maritime history.

Glass bottle, wreck of the Kléber, 20th century (2021-04-08) by ADRAMARAdramar

Glass bottle, wreck of Le Kléber, 1917

An object's immersion in sea water often gives it an unusual appearance, as is the case with this bottle covered in a limestone concretion.

Ship's bell, Saracen wreck, 20th century (2021-04-08) by ADRAMARAdramar

Ship's bell, wreck of the Saracen, 1917

A ship's bell is an object greatly prized by archaeologists. That's because the inscriptions engraved on them mention the ship's name and its date of launch, thereby identifying the wreck and considerably speeding up the archaeological investigation.

Porthole, wreck of Drummond Castle, 19th century (2021-04-08) by ADRAMARAdramar

Bronze porthole, wreck of the Drummond Castle, 1896

Bronze is a sought-after metal and is often found in wrecks. Unscrupulous divers sometimes plunder sites by removing objects from them—a practice that is absolutely illegal.

Case and pipe, wreck of La Dauphine, 18th century (2021-04-08) by ADRAMARAdramar

Pipe and case, wreck of La Dauphine, 1704

The excavation of the wreck of the French Privateer ship La Dauphine uncovered an extraordinary pipe case, meticulously sculpted in the shape of a pistol. Three hundred years after the ship sank, the case still contained its owner's pipe!

Pair of binoculars, Giorgos wreck, 20th century (2021-04-08) by ADRAMARAdramar

Pair of binoculars, wreck of the Georgios, 1918

As helpless as the Georgios itself when it sank in 1918, there was no escape for this pair of binoculars when the ship was lost off the coast of Ouessant following a navigation error during misty weather.

Lead bullet, wreck of La Bellone, 19th century (2021-04-08) by ADRAMARAdramar

Lead bullet, wreck of La Bellone, 1814

These musket bullets pull us straight back into the history of La Bellone, an English commercial ship requisitioned for the transportation of troops during the Napoleonic Wars. 

Coins, Site de Solidor, 18th century (2021-04-08) by ADRAMARAdramar

Coins, Solidor site, 18th century

Depending on their material and alloy, coins tend to be pretty well preserved. One thing is certain: Gold is the material that best endures the passage of time.

Chinese porcelain dish, wreck of the Prince de Conty, 18th century (2021-04-08) by ADRAMARAdramar

Porcelain cup, wreck of the Prince de Conty, 1746

On December 3, 1746, 22 months after setting sail from Lorient and just a few cable lengths from its home port, the Prince de Conty suddenly emerged from a cloud of fog and ploughed into the cliffs of Belle-Ile. Its cargo of porcelain from China and gold bars sank into the abyss.

Diving archaeological operation in the Gulf of Morbihan (2012-10-13) by Nicolas Job & ADRAMARAdramar

It's not just boats that end up at the bottom of the sea!

While the wreckage of holds loaded with gold may haunt our imagination, shipwrecks aren't the only things studied in this field. These archaeologists also study the sites of human settlements submerged by rising sea levels.

Flint cut on the submerged prehistoric site of Biéroc (2010-07-30) by ADRAMAR / Maritime Archaeological TrustAdramar

Carved flint at the underwater prehistoric site of Biéroc

The site, which is located at the foot of the cliff at Biéroc-la-Mondrée, lies at a depth of 20 meters and would have preceded the last ice age between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago. Excavations carried out during the 1970s resulted in the discovery of more than 2,500 pieces of carved flint.

Assembly of stones from the remains of the Daviers Mesolithic fishtrapp (2013-02-20) by Nicolas Job & ADRAMARAdramar

Les Daviers, a Mesolithic fishing ground off the coast of Saint-Malo

This site consists of a barrier of stone, which was created during the Mesolithic era to catch fish on the foreshore. Due to a rise in the sea level, it is now permanently underwater—and therefore totally unusable.

Megalith submerged in the bay of Quiberon (Morbihan, France) (2007-09-28) by ADRAMARAdramar

Megalith underwater in Quiberon Bay (Morbihan, France)

During dives, archaeologists observed that the megalithic alignments in Quiberon Bay continue under the water, with menhirs visible in areas that are now covered by the sea.

Clearance of a wreck during the archaeological study of the Gâvres boat cemetery (2020-11-04) by ADRAMARAdramar

Wood under the sand

The phenomenon of the sea's tides gives rise to a very special form of archaeological heritage: shipwrecks on the foreshore. Still imprisoned within the beach, these wrecks are revealed from time to time depending on the pattern of tides and storms.

D-DAY wrecks in Normandy: diving on the LST 523 and a Sherman tank (2019-06-14) by Jacques Le Lay/Sous le MerAdramar

Remains from the Second World War

Near the Landing Beaches in Normandy, these sites contain numerous tanks, which archaeologists study by diving to them.

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