This Marine Archeologist Saves Underwater History With Digital Tools

Delia Ni Chiobhain Enqvist creates 3-D models of submerged archaeological sites for the future.

May 15, 2018 5:00 am
Delia at work in surface-supply diving gear. (Bohusläns Museum)
Delia at work in surface-supply diving gear. (Bohusläns Museum)

What would a Real-Life Lara Croft series be without a well … real-life Lara Croft. An archeologist whose mission it is to enlighten the world about the marvels of history, protect priceless relics and fluidly transition between administrative paperwork and field research that makes the average job look like a walk in the park.

Marine archeologist Delia Ni Chiobhain Enqvist has spent her career studying human history and creating a time machine of information for the rest of us to use as a guide to better understand our predecessors. Her goals are to make archeology digestible to a wide audience and create imagery and dialogue around the past that benefits the collective conscience of those curious about life on this planet before our day.

The term “Lara Croft” is a touchy one in the scientific circles. We, of course, use it tongue in cheek in this series but there is quite reasonably a backlash to the idea of an oversexed femme fatale parading her way across the historic landscape of relics and priceless artifacts.

On the other hand, one can hardly fault the comparison when you marvel at the experiences Delia and her team have had in the field, utilizing cutting-edge technology and hard-earned expertise diving in near zero visibly to bring forth from the depths knowledge and visual cues about civilizations forgotten by time.

Not only is Delia’s work fascinating, but it also challenges typical gender roles in the field. For every Lara Croft, there are two dozen Indiana Jones figures. Although, women in marine archeology have been contributing to the field since the turn of the last century and before.

Names like Joan du Plat Taylor, a driving force in Mediterranean archeology; Honor Frost, whose work from Lebanon to Turkey to Italy shaped much of modern marine archeology; and Margaret Rule who was instrumental in the excavation and raising of Henry the VIII’s flagship Mary Rose.

An insight from Delia’s interview really hammered home the question of how different are we really from our predecessors, even with all our modern advancements … particularly when it comes to water.

“To cross over a body of water in a safe way is not ever guaranteed, even today with modern navigational equipment and safety procedures for shipbuilding. Have human emotions evolved over time or does the fear that accompanies a storm at sea really differ today to that of centuries ago? In the same way, we rely so much on water for our existence just as people in the past did, and likely those in the future will too. The importance of having access to fresh, clean drinking water is as relevant today as it ever was.”

For anyone who has spent time at sea, particularly in rough weather, this sentiment rings as true now as it must have for any civilization across time. The emotion of fear and our reliance on water transcends the passage of centuries and seemingly negates all of our advances in safety, navigation and technology. It essentially levels the playing field of time.

And this very core of human emotions, the primal nature of our fight for survival and our drive to explore our planet is at the heart of Delia’s research and what she hopes to present to her audience in a way that connects them to the past.

Delia at work in surface-supply diving gear. (Bohusläns Museum)

Passion is a powerful driving force for people. How did yours develop and mold who you are and what you do?

Delia Ni Chiobhain Enqvist: People are usually surprised to hear that I learned to swim when I was a teenager, whereas often people who work with the sea have a long relationship with it. While I had been to swim classes as a child, I’d never really felt that confident in the water until I was lucky to meet a fantastic instructor at my local pool who helped me to overcome my insecurities. Later I took up diving at university purely so that I could work with archaeology underwater and of course I made many diving friends who helped to inspire my love of everything underwater but in particular my first PADI instructor Jacquie Cozens truly encouraged and fostered my love and understanding of marine life and ecosystems, rather than just focusing on the old rotting ship timbers! I grew up on the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland and no doubt the living Gaelic language and hundreds of archaeological sites spread out over the landscape had some effect on my career pursuit, not to mention the museums that my parents took me to when traveling. So, even if deep down there was some passion or driving force, for me it has really been fostered by positive people who I’ve been fortunate to learn from along the way. Jacquie also encouraged me to apply for the Our World Underwater diving scholarship and throughout my year I was fortunate to meet inspiring individuals not only for my career, but also friends who share the same love for the sea (such as professional mermaid Linden Wolbert….also featured in this series!) and also as it happened my husband Johan, a cave diver who also works in the diving industry. It took about 10 years from when I decided to work with maritime archaeology to getting my first paid job in the industry so sticking to the plan and keeping that passion alive really requires conviction in one’s goals, but also being surrounded by positive and happy people. I realize I might sound like a positive internet meme, but for me it’s worked!

Delia completing a safety check on diver in Alingsås, Sweden. (Thomas Bergstrand)

What does being a maritime archaeologist entail?

DCE: Far more administration than one would imagine! Like most academic subjects, it’s possible to work within research or commercial areas and this differs from country to country. I work in Sweden and as a contract archaeologist, which does not involve being hired to take anybody out, but is carrying out archaeological surveys and excavations in response to development.

Let’s imagine that there’s a new bridge being built in a city, first, the developers will require planning permits and the regional authorities first need to consider a range of potential impacts, archaeology included. Archaeological companies, such as the museum where I work, Bohusläns museum, are contracted to either survey for new archaeological sites or to excavate those already known. This involves much administration but what is great about this kind of work is that one week one can be working in the middle of a city, whereas the next one could be in a small fishing village where a new marina pontoon is going to be installed. We work with both large companies or individuals and we also encounter archaeological sites from the stone age to more modern eras. In my company, we are four maritime archaeologists and we all share the administration roles of planning projects budgets, research plans and practical aspects, and we are all involved in the diving operations. Diving legislation varies across Europe, but in Sweden, the diving we do underwater is guided by rules laid out by the Work Environment Authority which involves more administration but also nice safe diving equipment and routines.

On typical diving projects there is one diver in the water, tethered to the surface with a constant supply of air from the surface and voice communications, one diver on stand-by in the event of an emergency and a dive leader who is responsible for the safety of the diver and who is in constant communication with the whole team. It’s also useful to communicate observations or archaeological data to the surface, rather than having to write underwater … and if we use a scanning sonar in connection dives it’s possible to accurately direct the diver to the object being investigated. This is particularly useful, and also safer when we work in conditions with poor visibility. In city rivers and areas with lots of trash, the main issue is the divers umbilical (what the diver’s air and the communication line is called) becoming snagged or entangled with objects on the bottom. All of our planned diving projects involve carrying out a risk assessment of potential hazards such as this, cold water, boat traffic, zero visibility, for example, … and a series of actions are put in place. Of course, if the risk possibilities are too high to mitigate, we simply do not dive. Archaeology is cool but it’s not worth risking anybody’s safety.

I’ve just explained my work role, but in fact, my daily routine has changed since 2015 when I enrolled as a grad student on behalf of the museum where I work. Instead, I’m researching the work that my colleagues do and my focus is on the use of digital documentation tools, such as photogrammetry and the creation of 3-D models of archaeological sites for communicating maritime and underwater archaeology.

Delia diving in a lake with poor visibility, Vänern, Sweden. (Staffan von Arbin)

What are some of the more fascinating field projects you have worked on?

DCE: As we mostly work on the west coast of Sweden sites like shipwrecks are not often found completely intact like in the Baltic Sea on the east coast, due largely to the absence in brackish water of a marine mollusk that eats wood (usually called shipworms), so I’m afraid I’ve not got the expected “this many meters” long warship with “so many” guns stories to recount. What fascinates me about maritime archaeology is how people’s interaction and dependence on water and oceans have changed little over centuries and it’s within understanding these experiences that a connection can be (or at least attempted) made with people, transcending time.

To cross over a body of water in a safe way is not ever guaranteed, even today with modern navigational equipment and safety procedures for shipbuilding. Have human emotions evolved over time or does the fear that accompanies a storm at sea really differ today to that of centuries ago? In the same way, we rely so much on water for our existence just as people in the past did, and likely those in the future will too. The importance of having access to fresh, clean drinking water is as relevant today as it ever was. These on the surface (pun somewhat intended) seem like mundane, everyday events, yet they are crucial to survival.

We worked once on a project along a river coming from Sweden’s second largest lake, Vättern. Our colleagues excavating on the foreshore had been for a number of years working on a settlement site between 9000 and 6000 years old and uncovered the remnants of their everyday lives like tools for fishing and food preparation, burials and ritual items. We were diving on an area in Motala ström that contained many stubby remains of poles that had been placed into the riverbed to form fishing traps. The majority of the poles were dated from the early Medieval period to the mid-1600s but analysis of the timber showed that one of the poles was dated to the same time as the Mesolithic (Stone Age) site on shore. We’re not sure if the site had been in continual use in all of this time, but the everyday actions that we take for granted are often the most exciting for me.

Delia and a scanning sonar, Stockholm city, Sweden. (Bohusläns Museum)

You mentioned that your research right now is looking at ways to digitally visualize underwater heritage for non-divers and trying to change the narrative from the usual “cool warship with guns” image to understanding social aspects of the past and putting people back into the archaeology…can you expand on this for anyone wanting to understand the specifics of the work you do?

DCE: So, the basis of our research within the grad school GRASCA – the Graduate School in Contract Archaeology – is to research new ways that contract archaeology can increase its impact on society. Many large projects are funded by taxpayers money and therefore it is expected that the results of archaeological work and research is not only made available but is also beneficial. My research is looking at how the maritime work archaeologists do, the sites we find and the resulting narratives are communicated to society, in particular through digital visualizations. The typical and somewhat stereotyped idea of an underwater archaeologist is typically male, can handle tough situations (influenced by characters like Indiana Jones and movies such as Men of Honor) and invariably involves some form of valuable treasure (thanks, Mel Fisher). This narrative might be interesting to some and in some cases might not be so far from the truth. However, it is not the only one, and I am interested in learning how perceptions and associated narratives can be expanded to not only include other marginalized histories, and to appeal to wider groups and audiences beyond those with an interest in maritime military history. (As a side note, Indiana Jones and Lara Croft are contentious popularizations of archaeologists, either loved or loathed by professionals and so I giggled when I imagined the responses by colleagues of being included in your Real-Life Lara Croft series. The director of GRASCA Professor Cornelius Holtorf wrote about this in a paper if you’re interested.)

How this can translate into digital visualizations is through those who   in Sweden, maritime archaeologists. As the main task of our work is to document sites underwater archaeologically, our priorities might be much different to those of a wreck diver or a photographer. Just one search of a famous landmark on Instagram shows how the same object can be visualized in any number of ways depending on what individuals feel is interesting. The messages, priorities, and narratives encoded in images and visualizations that are taken for granted by one group of users may often render them illegible to others. The goal of my research is to provide workflows and systems that help archaeologists create digital visualizations that can be of use to many audiences. This way the data can be of use for research and also open up largely inaccessible places to those who may not even have known they exist.

Delia in lake Vänern again, sometimes we only need to snorkel for survey. (Matthew Gainsford)

How important is the story element to you and getting the message across that each artifact had real people with real lives attached to it?

DCE: If I’m being completely honest this aspect was not always a large part of my work, even if it was an interest of mine. Working with contract archaeology, it can often happen that one is busy with planning projects (there’s the administration again!) and being concerned with project management timelines and budgets to ensure work gets done on time. Since changing roles and spending most of my time involved with research, I now see how important the connection with people can be. For example, archaeological results have the potential for being far more than simply sensational finds but can instead contribute meaningfully to ongoing social debates, from climate change to our perceptions on “how things always were” when discussing immigration, for example. However, this is not to say that visitors to a museum or an archaeological site can only appreciate the archaeology by knowing dates, rulers, and all the other information that research can offer. It is important that those narratives exist and are available, and that they can appeal to contemporary citizens.

We use a range of diving gear depending on the kind of diving, Gårdsjön, Sweden. (Delia Ni Chiobhain Enqvist)

What’s it like to be a successful woman in a relatively male-dominated space?

DCE: I think early on in my career when I was working my way towards “becoming” a maritime archaeologist I was more concerned with getting the relevant experience, the correct education, the important dive certificates – basically all of the things that would make me employable, that I didn’t give too much thought to gender within the field. Of course it was obvious that there were far more many men working with maritime archaeology and at times my being on projects was somewhat of a novelty, but I really tried to avoid thinking about it and did my best to fit in, be one of the guys, not in just how I act but also going along with the way the discipline is “done”.

So it really is since researching that I have had the time to read more on gender studies and heritage in general and reflect on working as a woman in a male-dominated field. I have been fortunate to have not had negative experiences or harassment directed at me based on my gender, but at times it has been difficult to introduce alternative or new ideas to a fairly traditional field. Even though new technologies are being used underwater that can resemble scenes from a sci-fi movie, there are many underlying structures in the discipline that are rooted in traditions that developed since the 1960s. There are some really fantastic researchers that are turning the trend from only focusing on technological aspects of shipwreck sites to include more human and emotional understandings of life onboard historical vessels. So I do see a change gradually happening and these developments have helped me as an individual to have the confidence to not only point out weaknesses in the status quo, but also propose the means by which we can change for the better. I think at the start of my career from having read textbooks for maritime archaeology 101, that are pretty much all written by men, that I took some kind of subliminal cue that the only way to work was to follow their wisdom, whereas now the climate has changed and that questioning “the way things are” is acceptable, which is a far healthier environment for the next generation of maritime archaeologists to come into.

Delia at university trying out some VR, Kalmar, Sweden. (Fredrik Gunnarsson)

Most people would be terrified to do what you do. So what terrifies you … if anything?

DCE: Like all jobs, they involve starting small and taking things step by step. I’ve been diving since 2003 so over time it’s all been a gradual building up of experience and education, so if I were placed in front of a bunch of school kids all of a sudden as their teacher I would also be terrified!

I have been uncomfortable in some situations underwater, for example, an unexpectedly strong current or not really knowing what lies on the bottom of waters in heavily populated areas. However, we are never placed in dangerous situations and the constant communication to the surface and a continuous flow of air also alleviate the sense of danger that open water divers might have. It’s also the case that sometimes if we don’t feel comfortable or up for a dive that we are not expected or pressured to. It’s not the hardcore diving that is depicted in movies where one is expected to “man up,” plus I’m quite happy to listen to my instincts when they kick in.

The scariest thing that we should all be terrified of is trash. I’ve had to clean archaeological sites of tampons just in order to photograph the site in a city river once. Another time when diving in a river I swam into a shopping cart that had flipped onto its side. I wasn’t in any danger of getting stuck and I just backed out, but seeing the stuff that people dump into water is incredible, as I’m sure most divers can attest to.

And finally, as a grad student, it’s mostly approaching deadlines that have the potential to give me a fright when they appear!

Documenting shiptimbers, Gothenburg, Sweden. (Delia Ni Chiobhain Enqvist)

Everyone has a message they put out into the world through their words, actions and lifestyle. What is yours?

DCE: I was trying to come up with a deep and meaningful message that emphasized being kind to others, but I think Moïra Fowley-Doyle said it best with her line: “Do no harm, but take no sh-t.” The doing no harm also includes recycling!

Providing safety diver support, Säve river, Gothenburg, Sweden. (Staffan von Arbin)

What future life goals do you have for the next 5 years?  Any big bucket list items, travels, career goals, etc.

DCE: I have a really detailed Individual study plan but that’s not really super exciting for anyone besides my supervisor and I! Over the next 5 years I look forward to completing my grad school education, not just for the title or a piece of paper, but for all of the new things I am going to learn, from there I’m happy to see what happens. I’m also excited to getting back to diving for fun rather than just for work, and in locations where things are visible. It’s taken me the best part of 10 years to master the Swedish language so it might be time to finally take up Italian as I visit quite often but can only really point at things and show my money. If you publish this goal, then I’ll really have to take classes!

Delia setting up her diving gear, Blekinge, Sweden. (Thomas Bergstrand)

Are there any questions you wish people would ask you or any message you would like to put out there?

DCE: I would like to think that if there are any young archaeologists, regardless of gender, who are considering a career underwater that they could see my journey as one possible way to achieve this. I have noticed through my university education and work experience that it’s far more common to see mentoring among males (this might also be due to more men working in maritime archaeology). I would like to see mentoring for everyone as it’s a really great way to pass on knowledge and to build confidence when starting a new career. Since the #MeToo movement there have been whole new communities established in Sweden not just among female archaeologists but within all professions, where women are coming together to point out systematic inequalities, to share experiences and to support one another. Moving on from this in the future I would like to see this kind of support transcending gender, so that inequalities are addressed and erased by everyone, and not just seen as being the responsibility of women.


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