Archaeologists usually learn about the past by digging in dirt and rock. But what happens when the artifacts of bygone eras are lost underwater? Some archaeologists, like Christopher E. Horrell, are trading in their shovels for scuba gear and diving below the waves to uncover the history lost in the ocean’s depths.

A Life by the Gulf

Horrell, who grew up along the Gulf Coast of the United States, developed a profound fascination with the ocean, maritime history, and culture. This interest led him to a career exploring the human connection to the sea. He serves as the president of Submerged Archaeological Conservancy International, a nonprofit organization focusing on the relationships between the archaeological record and the marine environment. He is a research associate with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University and serves as the Historic Preservation Officer and Senior Marine Archaeologist for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Horrell is also a National Geographic Explorer, whose work has been a springboard for others to explore broader research questions.

Challenges of a Shipwreck

Horrell’s work mostly focuses on projects relating to the Spanish colonial period in North, Central, and South America. One of his most recent achievements occurred during a search for the ships of the infamous Conquistador Hernán Cortés, who scuttled his fleet along the Gulf Coast of Mexico in 1519. Initially funded by the National Geographic Society, Horrell and his team have conducted high-resolution remote-sensing surveys of the area where the scuttling event took place 500 years ago. Targets identified during the survey were explored using divers and underwater excavation tools and methods. To date, three 16th century anchors have been identified in the project area, suggesting that the hull remains are somewhere nearby. One of the anchors still has its wooden stock attached, and utilizing his archaeological and scientific diving training, he extracted wood samples which may provide additional clues as to the age and nationality of these pieces of ground tackle. The results indicate that the wooden stock was cut in the 15th century and comes from the Cantabrian Mountains of Northern Spain. This evidence suggests that Horrell and his team are on the right path to identifying the sites associated with the events of 1519. At this time, these artifacts remain buried in place. Artifacts submerged in—or even exposed to—water for long periods become fragile, and removing them without a conservation plan can lead to severe damage, deterioration, and loss of valuable information.

Connecting to the Past

By excavating and mapping shipwreck sites, Horrell has provided historians new perspectives on Spanish colonization efforts in places like Mexico and other Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Panama. Findings from such projects have deepened our understanding of past cultures, yielding insights into how people once lived, what they believed, and how they behaved.

Archaeology is all about discovering patterns of human behavior through the material remains people left behind,” Horrell said in a press release issued by the University of Miami discussing the recent discoveries made during the Lost Ships of Cortés Project. “In this case, the shipwrecks and associated artifacts are the tangible remains that can recast the story of the conquest, providing a greater understanding of how our world has changed through time.”

Explorer Profile: Christopher E. Horrell, Marine Archaeologist

Unlike most archaeologists, Christopher E. Horrell looks for evidence of past civilizations underwater. He mainly studies the Spanish colonial period in North, Central, and South America.

archaeologist
Noun

person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

Noun

study of human history, based on material remains.

Noun

material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.

colonization
Noun

spreading of a species into a new habitat or ecosystem, and establishing a healthy population there.

culminate
Verb

to reach the highest point or most important part of something.

culture
Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

excavate
Verb

to expose by digging.

maritime
Adjective

having to do with the ocean.

relic
Noun

memento or surviving object of the past.

shipwreck
Noun

remains of a sunken marine vessel.

submerge
Verb

to put underwater.

survey
Noun

a study or analysis of characteristics of an area or a population.