Underwater Archaeology Branch, Naval History & Heritage Command

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Underwater Archaeology Branch
Agency overview
Formed1996 (1996)
HeadquartersWashington D.C., United States
Agency executive
  • Captain Henry J. Hendrix II, USN (PhD), Director of Naval History
Parent agencyNaval History & Heritage Command

The Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) of the Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC) is a unit of the United States Department of the Navy. It was formally founded in 1996 as a consequence of the emerging need to manage, study, conserve, and curate the U.S. Navy's submerged cultural resources.[1]

History and mission[edit]

The Branch acts as the center of expertise and recognized authority for the Department of the Navy in all matters related to the science of underwater archaeology and the identification, research, analysis, interpretation, preservation, conservation, inventory, and management of Navy's historic shipwrecks and aircraft wrecks and their associated contents.[1]

The Branch preserves, protects, and makes access available to sunken military craft and their associated contents which act as a permanent reminder of the Navy's naval engagements, technological advancements, and maritime heritage.[2]

Duties and responsibilities[edit]

Underwater archaeological expertise[edit]

UAB advises the NHHC on all matters concerning underwater archaeology, preservation and management of United States Navy wrecks. UAB also provides expertise on sunken Navy military craft to other Navy Commands, the Department of Defense, other Federal Agencies, state and local governments, non-profit organizations, universities, and the media.[1]

Archaeological research[edit]

Conserved box and shell from CSS Alabama housed in the UAB Lab

UAB conducts scientific research in the form of archaeological surveys, site assessments, and excavations.[3] Among the most prominent projects are H. L. Hunley,[4][5] CSS Alabama,[6][7] surveys conducted off Normandy Beaches,[8][9][10] and the search for USS Bonhomme Richard.[11][12] UAB also oversees, supports, and issues archaeological permits to third-party researchers.[13] Finally, the Branch seeks to encourage research and development in related science and technology fields which in turn contribute to Navy project-based training.

Conservation and curation of artifacts[edit]

Lab technician cataloging USS Tulip artifact

UAB operates a state-of-the-art Archaeology & Conservation Laboratory as well as provides professional guidance to the Navy on conservation and curation of artifacts originating from an underwater environment. The branch inventories, conserves, curates, and provides access to an artifact collection of over 2000 artifacts for research, analysis, and museum exhibition. It also maintains an archaeological artifact loan program with over 7200 artifacts currently on loan to national and international museums.[14]

The UAB Laboratory also functions as an environmentally-controlled curatorial repository for Navy's recovered artifacts that are not on loan to museums or other institutions. After removal from an underwater environment, the artifacts are in immediate danger due to the deteriorating effects of increased oxygen, temperature, light, and other atmospheric conditions. While artifacts are undergoing conservation in the laboratory, they are scientifically analyzed and thoroughly documented to prevent loss of information throughout the stabilization process. Even after they are stabilized, artifacts excavated from underwater sites require periodic monitoring and evaluation, as they are susceptible to fluctuations in their immediate environment. All collections are available for study, with research as its goal.[14]

Historic preservation and policy development[edit]

Navy underwater archaeologists map early 19th century shipwreck

The Branch develops, coordinates, reviews, advises, and implements policy related to the preservation and protection of Navy sunken military craft and Ensures Navy compliance with applicable federal laws. To this effect, it drafts cooperative agreements, state or regional management plans, legislation, regulations, and assists the Department of State and Department of Justice in international agreements and litigation claims involving both domestic and foreign sunken military craft.[1]

Under the Sunken Military Craft Act, the United States maintains ownership of any sunken military craft and its associated contents owned or operated by the government at the time of its sinking, regardless of the passage of time or location. As a result, it is illegal to disturb, remove, or injure sunken military craft, including navy wrecks, as well as foreign government historic wrecks located in U.S. waters, without permission.[15][16]

As part of its management mandate, UAB also coordinates the protection of Navy sunken military craft as, besides their historical importance, many of them serve as war graves, carry unexploded ordnance, or may potentially raise environmental concerns.[1]

In addition to policy and laws, the UAB maintains a geographic information system and database of over 3,000 ship and 14,000 aircraft wrecks for management as well as prepares nominations for the National Register of Historic Places.[17]

Outreach efforts and dissemination of information[edit]

The UAB disseminates information to the Navy, the general public, and academia on Navy archaeology, conservation, history, and historic preservation policy via scientific and popular publications, lectures, the NHHC UAB web-site,[1] in-person tours of the Archaeology & Conservation Laboratory, the artifact loan program, and underwater archaeological exhibits. The UAB also strives to support United States Naval Academy midshipmen training and student research.[1][18]


Assessment of well-preserved WWII aircraft

The Underwater Archaeology Branch, as the Department of the Navy's sole expertise on underwater cultural heritage, envisions the Navy's sunken ship and aircraft as a unique resource for interpreting the Navy's history and traditions through the science of underwater archaeology. The Navy's sunken military craft represent a non-renewable, fragile, and untapped repository for science, technology, and history.[19]

The Branch operates at the interface between policy, archaeology, history, cultural resource management, and marine science. As such, it is highly dependent upon multi-disciplinary cooperative relationships with federal, state and private programs, advances in technologies, and a variety of scientific disciplines.[19]


  • The Underwater Archaeology Branch intends to augment and maintain its reputation as the Navy's center of expertise in all matters pertaining to underwater archaeology, conservation, historic preservation policy, and sunken military craft management.
  • Identify priority targets, conduct archaeological research, and produce educational products and publications on the Navy's historic wrecks.
  • Maintain a state-of-the-art conservation and curation laboratory.
  • Build cooperative relationships with other Navy Commands, federal agencies, academic institutions and private sector with the aim of preserving Navy's cultural heritage.
  • Educate the Navy and the public on the importance of preserving the Navy's underwater archaeological cultural heritage for present and future generations.
  • Fulfill the legal mandate regarding the management and preservation of the Navy's historic ship and aircraft wrecks.


Survey of Normandy Landing sites


  1. ^ a b c d e f g UAB Introduction
  2. ^ SECNAVINST 4000.35A, Department of the Navy Cultural Resources Program
  3. ^ Catsambis, Alexis, and George Schwarz. "Naval Historical Center, Underwater Archaeology Branch 2008." Society of Historical Archaeology Newsletter 41, no. 4 (2008): 21-23.
  4. ^ a b UAB Hunley project
  5. ^ a b Friends of the Hunley
  6. ^ a b UAB CSS Alabama project
  7. ^ a b CSS Alabama Association, Reading Room
  8. ^ a b UAB Normandy project
  9. ^ a b Neyland, Robert S. "The Underwater Navy at Normandy." Naval History June 2009: 37-40. Print.
  10. ^ a b Neyland, Robert S., and James S. Schmidt. Survey of D-Day Shipwrecks off Normandy Phase II. Rep. Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 2002. Print.
  11. ^ a b Ocean Technology Foundation: Bonhomme Richard project
  12. ^ a b National Geographic, Search for the Bonhomme Richard
  13. ^ UAB: Archaeological Research Permits
  14. ^ a b UAB Conservation and Curation
  15. ^ Division A, Title XIV of the Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005 which was passed 2004
  16. ^ UAB:Custody and management of shipwrecks
  17. ^ National Register of Historic Places
  18. ^ BHR Collaborators
  19. ^ a b "Underwater Archaeology Branch". United States Navy. May 3, 2009. Retrieved March 26, 2010.
  20. ^ UAB USS Alligator project
  21. ^ UAB USS Cumberland project
  22. ^ UAB CSS Florida project
  23. ^ UAB USS Housatonic project
  24. ^ Conlin, David. USS Housatonic Site Assessment. Report no. 19. Submerged Resources Center. Santa Fe: National Park Service, 2005.
  25. ^ UAB USS Scorpion project
  26. ^ UAB USS Tecumseh project
  27. ^ UAB USS Tulip project
  28. ^ UAB U-1105 project
  29. ^ UAB Boca Chica Channel Wreck project
  30. ^ UAB Penobscot project

External links[edit]