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The Duart Point wreck and maritime archaeology: an interview with Colin J M Martin

3rd April 2017 | Categories: Publications

To mark the launch of his new book, ‘A Cromwellian Warship wrecked off Duart Castle, Mull, Scotland, in 1653’, Colin J M Martin FSA Scot discusses the book, the excavation, and the exciting world of maritime archaeology.

Colin J M Martin Copyright: Paula Martin

Colin J M Martin
Copyright: Paula Martin


1. How did you get started in maritime archaeology?

I learned to dive in the late 1950s with the army in Cyprus, and was fascinated by antiquities lying on the seabed. Later I became a freelance photo-journalist, specialising in historical and archaeological topics. One of my assignments was to cover the search for a Spanish Armada wreck in Ireland and when I got there, out of the blue, I was asked to become the project’s archaeologist. In those days there were very few archaeologists (even amateur ones like me) who could dive. It was a very steep learning curve. The wreck was found and we spent two seasons working there. Two other Armada wrecks followed (one in Scotland), and then I was invited to set up a research institute at St Andrews University.


2. How have you seen the field develop throughout your working life?

Contour survey of the Duart Point site Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Contour survey of the Duart Point site Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Technically there have been significant developments, particularly in robotic approaches to the investigation of deep-water wrecks, and sonar scanning, which allows shipwrecks to be recorded electronically with high resolution 3D imaging. Notable examples have been in the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the North American Great Lakes. However, as with archaeology on dry land, impressive remote visualisations assist but do not replace the systematic and painstaking hands-on approach of the on-the-spot investigator, identifying, recording, and interpreting evidence first-hand. Archaeology above or below the water is a humanistic discipline which draws on, but is not defined by, whatever scientific techniques can helpfully be employed.


Gun 8 Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Gun 8
Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

3. Where do you think research in maritime archaeology will go in the future?

It has the potential, if properly channelled, to become a major force in the wider discipline of archaeology. Apart from the ship itself, each wreck constitutes a time-capsule unique to its particular circumstances and time. Unless salvaged everything on board, regardless of value, will be there. Organics – usually absent

from terrestrial assemblages – often survive in excellent condition. In many ways a wreck is a microcosm of its parent society ashore. Some finds will have implications far beyond the immediacy of a particular ship – think for instance of the significance to historical metallurgy of the Duart Point cannon, or to the study of Scots ‘tappit hens’ from pewter vessels recovered from the same wreck.

4. What opportunities are there to work in maritime archaeology in Scotland?

At the moment they are quite limited. University programmes at St Andrews and Edinburgh have been discontinued, though Orkney College of UHI still runs maritime archaeological courses. Commercial work (desk-based assessments, investigations on behalf of heritage agencies, and impact mitigations) are carried out by companies such as Wessex Archaeology and SULA Diving in Orkney. Some amateur projects and training are carried out under the auspices of the Nautical Archaeology Society but funding and expertise are limited, so activities are restricted to non-intrusive work.

5. What would be your dream maritime find in Scotland?

A nearly intact medieval or Roman shipwreck.

6. Of the sites you’ve worked on throughout your career, what has been your favourite?

It has to be the Duart Point wreck.

7. How did you first get involved with the excavation off Duart Point?

The job needed to be done and at the time I was one of the very few people in Scotland who could dive and had experience of archaeological work on shipwrecks.

Cover of A Cromwellian Warship, by Colin J M Martin

Cover of A Cromwellian Warship, by Colin J M Martin

8. What were the biggest challenges you faced on this particular excavation?

It wasn’t so much a challenge as a privilege, as I was handed the project on a plate. Historic Scotland was concerned about erosion on the site, and anxious to establish procedures for the management of historic shipwrecks – a responsibility it had just taken on. They provided encouragement and significant funding. The National Museums agreed to curate all the finds, and provided superb conservation services as well as additional funding. Sir Lachlan Maclean of Duart was immensely supportive throughout and allowed us to set up our accommodation and other facilities. My university provided me with time and administrative support. My wife, who was herself deeply involved in the project, never complained. My archaeological colleagues were a joy to work with, as were the scholars who researched specialist aspects of the finds. The editorial staff at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland were magnificent. It was a pleasant and safe site to dive on, and the setting was superb. What more could I have asked for?

9. What is the significance of this particular wreck in the context of Scottish maritime archaeology?

It’s the first major underwater excavation of its kind to be brought through to final publication in Scotland.

10. Are there any other similar sites around Scotland?

Countless thousands, and each will be different in terms of what it can tell us. So every one is precious.


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