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Marine archaeology — An old fellowship has arisen. After a break of more than 20 years, four students have salvaged KUMAG, the University of Copenhagen's Marine Archaeological Group, so they can get together around their niche interest.
The University of Copenhagen’s Marine Archaeological Group was re-started during a drinking binge. In April 2022, Emilie Bruun was at a Friday bar with her colleagues from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, where she is student assistant. After a couple of beers she started complaining, just like she normally does.
She was frustrated with the teaching staff at the University of Copenhagen’s Archaeology section. They did not have much knowledge about marine archaeology, even though the field is in dire need of manpower. The only marine archaeological programme in Denmark was closed in 2017 due to the annual funding cuts at the University of Southern Denmark.
The programme was one of the very few master’s degree programmes in the world when it closed down. Since then, if you were based in Denmark, you have had to either study abroad or spend your own savings on an industrial diver course in Norway. This included the — for an archaeologist useless — skill of welding under water.
A colleague suggested that she should restart the old student club KUMAG, which had been inactive for more than 20 years.
Marine archaeology is a very important niche in Denmark. This is clear to us, as we stand here one cold and rainy winter day with four archaeology students, who relate enthusiastically the tale of the Danish naval ship Gribshunden, which accidentally succumbed to fire in the Baltic Sea in 1495 and which was first studied archaeologically in 2001.
»As far as I remember, they even found saffron on board because the ship was so well preserved. And there was a really cool figurehead,« says Emilie Bruun, who is on the prehistoric archaeology programme.
Rosa Wernblad, who is a student of classical archaeology, talks about the almost two-metre-high bronze statues, dubbed the Riace bronzes, which were discovered by a boy with a snorkel near Reggio di Calabria in Italy in 1972.
Oliver Munch, another student of prehistoric archaeology, adds that Denmark has gone through huge sea-level increases due to the retreat of the ice in the Mesolithic. At that time, people exploited marine resources along the coasts and left flint, fishing nets, fish traps, harpoons and both animal and human bones. He adds that marine archaeological studies of Southern Scandinavian settlements have led to important knowledge about the complexity of the Stone Age.
And Cora Annamaiya Norling, a student of Near Eastern Archaeology complains that her department is simply not »damp enough,« and that she is therefore doing an exchange to San Diego in California to get more marine archaeology courses.
As far as I remember, they even found saffron on board because the ship was so well preserved.
The four students of archaeology are the core of the resurrected KUMAG, which is comprised of Near Eastern, prehistoric and classical archaeology students.
»When marine archaeology is such a small and narrow subject, we ought to do something for our interest across the different subject lines while we are still on the programme,« says Oliver Munch.
Their official purpose is to be a network and meeting place for students of archaeology with a particular interest in underwater archaeology, and at the same time to communicate knowledge about it across study programmes. But in the future, the club also wants to get members out on floats, so to speak, when museums do marine archaeological studies, they say.
»The old KUMAG was a focal point that connected museums to students who had a marine archaeological interest. It flew the flag and said: ‘We are here. Use us!’ We would like this also,« says Rosa Wernblad.
»Back then, there was an instructor who was a trained marine archaeologist. This meant that KUMAG could join excavations. We do not want to give each other more homework or assignments however, as we already have enough. We mostly just want to get people together doing something really cool,« says Emilie Bruun.
At a start-up meeting at the end of April 2022, about 30 students turned up for some liquorice sweets and a chat about the group’s possible future. In the months that followed, they met every week to discuss new finds and possible ways to become marine archaeologists. In the autumn, they organised an excursion for first-year students to the Viking Ship Museum, and they reached out to both Danish and international marine archaeologists to get practitioners to come out and talk about their research. They have all had to postpone everything because of being busy.
»It’s a bit embarrassing that we haven’t got things really moving yet. But it’s not because we haven’t tried,« says Emilie Bruun.
This year KUMAG plans to organize research evenings. And they have contacted a diving club, where they hope that the club’s members can take a basic level diving certificate this summer.
»We have a lot of plans. I’m convinced that many of the people we’ve contacted have time for us this spring,« says Rosa Wernblad.
It may well be a good thing that a new generation takes the lead on the marine archaeological interest, even though there is no longer a degree programme in Denmark. Cora Annamaiya Norling remembers a presentation by the Danish Agency for Culture and Palaces, where the speakers said that there really was a shortage of marine archaeologists. Marine archaeologist colleagues say the same thing.
In August 2020, the museum curator and team leader for marine archaeological studies at the Viking Ship Museum Morten Johansen said that the industry faces a bottleneck problem.
»If I had been a carpenter, I would say ‘find someone else. Or come back in three to four years time’,« he said to the Weekendavisen newspaper.
This is due to the fact that Denmark has had a large number of construction projects going on in Danish waters in recent years. The energy islands, Lynetteholmen, the Femern connection, wind farms and so on. The construction projects often require marine archaeological studies, because they need to ensure that there is no Danish cultural heritage under the water. Buildings may be delayed if shipwrecks or other historical finds are surfaced.
»Almost all of the major construction projects need archaeological and marine archaeological work that can delay the construction if they are not prioritised. Many of the projects are also about the green transition, so there is a huge need for marine archaeologists if, for example, need to meet our climate targets on time,« says Rosa Wernblad.
KUMAG wants to be the link between museums and interested students, they say. Something not entirely inconceivable. As soon as the students have passed the course in excavation techniques, they are allowed to join excavations and be paid for their work.
There is a need for marine archaeologists if we are to meet our climate targets on time.
This summer, Rosa Wernblad was on an excavation of a maritime villa in the Bay of Naples, while Oliver Munch spent the summer on an excavation in northern Zealand. Cora Annamaiya Norling was in Israel, and Emilie Bruun has worked as a divers’ assistant for marine archaeologists at the Viking Ship Museum.
»In connection with the marine archaeological feasibility study for the Lynetteholmen project, it is often about interpreting soil layers to see if there is something of archaeological value. This is a real job and we could do it. In addition, all findings need to be categorised and stored, which we can also help with,« says Emilie Bruun. Cora Annamaiya Norling adds:
»Here, the museums need to use our help!«
The four archaeology students had all taken the master’s degree programme programme in Esbjerg had they had the opportunity. Instead, they and others with the same interest must try to find another pathway via, for example, Norway, the UK or the US. But no matter what their path, they hope that KUMAG can get people together to do marine archaeology during their studies, and to encourage those who want to go in the same direction.