Boston Archeology Fair – Spotlight: Matthew Lawrence

One of the presentations on October 19th at the AIA-MOS Archaeology Fair was “Ask Dr. Dig“, a panel discussion with four archeologists who work in four different milieus: one who works largely with road and bridge construction sites at the NH Department of Transportation, one who works as a city archeologist in Boston, one who works in Egypt, and the other who works in and around the ocean.

Highlighted on this post is Matthew Lawrence, a maritime archeologist who works at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off of Cape Cod.

This was a fascinating discussion.

Because two of the four work at development sites, there was talk of “cultural resource management.” In other words, archeologists are often required to investigate a site before development can begin.  It is their job to make sure any archeological artifacts are removed appropriately.

Of particular note to me was something that Matthew Lawrence himself said in response to this part of the conversation: “It is only when things are being disturbed that archeology is undertaken.”

Ask Dr. Dig

(Information on screen highlighting the panel members at the Boston Museum of Science; picture thanks to Sheila Charles.)

Dr. Dig Panel

(Picture of panel members. From left to right: John Nolan, Joseph Bagley, Sheila Charles, and Matthew Lawrence; picture thanks to Sheila Charles.)

Matthew generously responded to my follow-up questions below:


1. Have you always wanted to be a maritime archeologist?

Growing up I participated in an archaeology club at my local museum and once I learned to scuba dive, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for a career.

2. What kind of training does one need to be able to do archeology underwater?

In addition to learning about the theories and methods of archaeology, its usually necessary to become a proficient scuba diver. Alternatively, experience with advanced marine technology, such as remotely operated vehicles, can allow you to conduct archaeological research without getting your feet wet.  For those who would like to try out underwater archaeology, but not pursue it as a career, there are a number of avocational training programs available to teach the basics.

3. How do you preserve things that are found underwater once you bring them up?  Do you work in conjunction with other people and other fields to do so?

Artifacts recovered from the oceans require a lengthy and expensive conservation process that involves the removal of dissolved salts and the stabilization of the artifact’s structure.  Artifacts recovered from a freshwater environment may only need structural stabilization.  Specialists in the field of conservation are a vital component of any underwater archaeological research project.  These individuals typically have a greater understanding of chemistry than most archaeologists.  As in all archaeological research, much of the information learned about a site is found out in the lab.

4. During the discussion, you mentioned that the archeological artifacts you’d most want to find would be Paleoamerican artifacts.  What kinds of artifacts would these include?  And how would one find them (by digging underwater? is there any underground technology that might help?)

Evidence of paleoamerican habitation of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary could be found in the form of fire rings or stone tools.  It possible that organic materials also might be present in a buried context.  To locate these materials, archaeologists would use optical survey systems, sub-bottom profilers, and coring.

5. In your work at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, do you often see whales?  Do you have any fun anecdotes about marine life you encounter?

I frequently see whales and other marine life on the surface, while conducting archaeological survey work.  When investigating shipwrecks on the seafloor, I usually find them teeming with a variety of fishes and invertebrates.  While diving on a shipwreck a few years ago, a large gray shaped passed close by me in my peripheral vision.  My first thought was BIG SHARK!!!!, but it turned out to be a large mola mola, a large, flattened, unusually shaped fish that I had never encountered near the seafloor.

Mola Mola Matthew Lawrence SBNMS

(photo of mola mola courtesy of Matthew Lawrence)

6. What do you like most about being an archeologist?

Archaeology is fun! The thrill of discovery when I find a new site or new information is followed closely by the enjoyment I get interpreting that information for an interested audience at a presentation.


For more information about Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary:

Many, many thanks to Matthew Lawrence for his fascinating answers and lightning quick response to my emails!