This paper is part of the Proceedings of the Maritime Cultural Landscape Symposium, October 14-15, 2015, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Michael Russo
Southeast Archeological Center, National Park Service

What is a Maritime Cultural Landscape (MCL) and can an archeological MCL exist? Though the term was coined by Westerdahl (1979) originally as a tool to get archeologists working separately on underwater and terrestrial features to view their apparently disparate sites as materially and historically related, today “Maritime Cultural Landscape” is being used by federal land managers to classify and protect submerged shipwrecks and other near-shore or submerged water-related cultural and natural features found in marine sanctuaries and parks. Under the National Register Landscape Initiative (NRLI), MCLs are one of several types of landscapes being considered for increased attention in NR nominations. In particular, the NRLI asks of landscapes “if additional guidance is needed, where inconsistencies need to be resolved, and what types of landscapes need to be better addressed by the program.”

As the case currently stands, virtually no National Register (NR) guidelines specific to Maritime Cultural Landscapes (MCLs) and certainly none specific to archeological MCLs exist. Given that the National Register by design and law recognizes only five property types (building, structure, object, site, and district) and given that landscape is not considered one of these types (although any specific landscape may contain one or more of the types among a panorama otherwise dominated by natural features), the general absence of NR guidance on MCLs is understandable. It was not until the NR was well up and rolling that the greater urban, rural, and natural contexts of property types became increasingly and fully viewed, if not officially sanctified, as property types themselves.

That there are no descriptions for maritime landscapes in NR bulletins is not surprising. There are also no specific Register bulletins on mountain landscapes, subterranean landscapes, aerial landscapes or specific site types like subway tracks, turpentine camps, rollercoasters, migration trails and the thousands of other kinds of places that constitute geophysical/historical aspects of U.S. history. NR guidance is purposely general in character to accommodate the nearly infinite historically significant places that make up the country. Specific places are perforce fit into one or more of the five types allowed by law, often with some difficulty.

Figure 1. National Register Bulletin 18, How to Evaluate and Nominate Designed Historic Landscapes.

Only a few specific place types sufficiently distinct in character from modal historic property types have warranted their own guidance documents. For example, ships, cemeteries, mines, and, pertinent to this discussion, urban and rural landscapes have their own NR bulletins.  The first, NR Bulletin 181, published in 1981 (Figure 1) some 15 years after the establishment of the register dealt, with Designed Urban Landscapes whose contributing elements primarily included buildings and structures, but also open lands such as parks and gardens. This bulletin still serves well the Register nomination of historic urban landscapes. The second, Bulletin 30 on Rural Historic Landscapes, was released in 1990. It provided guidance on nominating all non-urban landscapes, distinguishing urban from rural landscape primarily by differences in the ratio of the built environment consisting of, for example, ranch houses, fences and roads, to the natural environment consisting of landforms such as mountains, fields, and streams and of vegetation cover including forests, brush and crops on natural or modified lands such as farm fields. As long as people had worked in, manipulated, or otherwise affected the natural environmental features in some historically significant way, and as long as there were far greater amounts of natural or modified lands than buildings or structures, rural landscapes were seen as potentially eligible for the Register, usually as a district or site. Under NR Bulletin 30, natural features could not be seen as part of the rural landscapes unless they “reflected the day-to-day occupational activities of people engaged in traditional work” who “have developed and evolved (the natural features) in response to both the forces of nature and the pragmatic need to make a living.” That is, the historic significance of a rural historic landscape in the view of the NR under Bulletin 30 was that it reflects people’s adaptations to the natural environment.

Figure 2. National Register Bulletin 30, Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Rural Historic Landscapes.

For archeology, Bulletin 30 was far more substantial than Bulletin 18 had been (Figure 2). It mentioned archeological sites nineteen times, stressing their potential as landscape features akin to buildings and structures when observable in such things as relic house foundations, stone fences, or old dirt roads. Calling such a view of archeology sites “landscape archeology” is probably not appropriate. Archeological deposits, in fact, were not defined as holding the potential to constitute a landscape in their own right except in the case where man-made structures or human modified vegetation or natural features remained observable and sustained integrity under Criterion C. That is, no clear definition as to what may or may not constitute a Criterion D “archeological landscape” or its features was presented. In fact the term “archeological landscape” never was and has never been used in NR 30 or any other NR guidance.

Figure 3. National Register Bulletin 36, Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Archeological Properties.

Why the omission?  One part of the answer can be found in Bulletin 36, Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Archeological Properties (Figure 3). It states that “Under Criteria A, B, and C, the National Register places a heavy emphasis on a property looking like it did during its period of significance.” That is, landscapes from the typical NR perspective were viewable entities preserved in time. None were constituted solely of unobservable soil stains or artifacts buried underground that needed technical interpretations to reckon their historical significance.  Unlike almost all other Register property types, archeology sites, under Criterion D, was seen as significant for the information or potential information they held, not for their appearance and high degree of preservation that evoked their original setting. Like previous bulletins, 36 presented no clean definition of, or guidelines for, dealing with strictly archeological landscapes that lacked above-ground features.2

If not in outline, Bulletin 36 did present by example what at least one potential archeological landscape might look like: “natural features of oak groves and grasslands, demonstrates the management of hunted and gathered resources through burning to promote particular environments.” In this example, the recurrent processual theme and requirement of Bulletin 30 for rural historic landscapes is stressed: rural landscapes could be identified through material evidence that people worked or adapted to the natural environment, and the major historical significance of the archeological landscape was the information it provided “to understand the effects of environmental change and population pressure and the impact of human actions on the landscape.”

Figure 4. Bulletin 21, Defining Boundaries for National Register Properties.
Note here the distinct that archeological features are specifically distinguished from landscape features.

In Bulletin 21, Defining Boundaries for National Register Properties, (Figure 4) no definition of landscapes is presented, but it does offer examples of landscapes as bounded sites and districts, some of which might contain archeological deposits. Again in these descriptions, however, all landscapes only under Criterion C, that is, for their standing structures and/or visible natural features. Archeological features are seen as cultural lagniappe. It was the visible structures, not the hidden deposits that made the landscape. The bulletin cautions the reader to “[r]emember that many buildings have associated contributing landscape and archeological features. Consider these resources as well as the architectural resources when selecting boundaries and evaluating significance of buildings.”

Under the examples from Bulletin 21 as to how to bound NR sites in general and not landscapes in particular, 6 out of 17 are described as landscapes or as containing landscape features including archeological sites with no surface expressions. But when the reader turns to the section entitled “Boundaries for Archaeological Sites and Districts,” wherein Criterion D is the primary criterion of significance, none of the sites or districts mentions landscapes or landscape features at all. That is, none of the buried or sealed archeological sites are viewed as landscapes. In one example, archeological components are explicitly excluded from landscape feature recognition because, I suspect, the archeology is not apparent on the surface. Again as shown in the quotation above, examples landscape features are seen as being restricted to the observable natural features: “Archeological components include a village midden area with a depth of about 2 feet, while the landscape features include rocks, a grove of trees, and a waterfall. Within this site there is significant linkage between archeological record and traditional cultural features.” The only conclusion to draw from Bulletin 21 is that there may be historically significant archeological components and there may be historically significant landscape, but the two are not the same thing when bounding NR sites. Archeological components are not landscape features.

As stated, I suspect the fact that no buried archeological sites or districts have ever been identified as NR landscapes is due in large part to their apparent invisibility. When cultural components are not observable, as is the case for most subsurface archeology, then they are simply not considered as part of a landscape. The common definition of landscape of course, stresses the visibility of features,3 and archeology most often lacks the requisite visibility.

If observable features are necessary prerequisite for archeology to be included in an NR definition of landscape, we might ask how such restrictions might affect the nomination of an archeological maritime landscape if all contributing elements are buried under ground or in deep or murky waters? Are these features observable at all or enough to qualify for the landscapes as described by NR Bulletins?

Figure 5. National Register Bulletin 20, Nominating Historic Vessels and Shipwrecks to the National Register of Historic Places.

Although it does not talk specifically of landscapes, the 1986 Bulletin 20, Nominating Historic Vessels and Shipwrecks to the National Register of Historic Places, provides a good overview of the unique problems inherent in locating and describing shipwrecks, one potential type of an archeological maritime cultural landscape (Figure 5). It notes that for Register review purposes, wrecks and wreck elements are always seen as archeological sites. As discussed above, if the Register indeed holds to this stance, then shipwrecks’ classification under Criterion D for information potential rather than their aesthetic, period, or master-work aspects would almost always preclude their identification as landscape features.

On the other hand, as Bulletin 20 notes, “the application of the National Register criteria to shipwrecks has not been well defined or understood.” As such, I think, clarifying when and how shipwrecks should be classified as structures and not archeological sites, or at least as observable features, would be critical to any attempt at involving them as contributing elements in historic landscape districts, at least under present NR guidelines.

Current Register guidance describes the process of nominating shipwrecks as archeological sites. But to get theses site as being seen as whole or parts of landscapes, Register guidance needs updating. If the Rural Historic Landscape criteria are applied to shipwrecks, and it is perhaps the closest fit the NR currently has, some major issues will need to be addressed.

One issue is the requirement for people or cultures to have worked or shaped or modified the land in order for archeology to be considered a cultural landscape. In the case of shipwrecks, with few exceptions, most historic and prehistoric sailors or passengers did not work the ocean bottom. Rather, the working life of the vessel was typically restricted to its time as a floating entity, not its brief tenure as a sinking or sunken one. We may have to reconsider the land in landscape to include water (and air?), or redefined the landscape concept to include seascapes, lakescapes, airscapes, etc.

We may also need to clarify if the water column is essentially a proxy for a soil column on land. That is, is the water simply the archeological equivalent of soil overburden atop a buried terrestrial site. Is the ship that now sits on the ocean bottom still considered in situ for being in the “geographical area that historically has been used by people, or shaped or modified by human activity, occupancy, or intervention?” That is, if the water is the “scape” of concern that defines a submerged maritime “landscape,” should it matter if the ship is on top or below the surface water?

Can a submerged maritime “landscape” not include the water under which the cultural features now lie? Academically, probably not. But on a managerial level, different agencies and interested parties may hold separate rights and concerns to water and benthic resources, while governments and agencies and insurance entities different from those holding benthic and water authority may hold rights to the wrecks. For the Register, this is a concern in that agreement of all property owners is needed for listing. But more to the point of nominating the wreck as a landscape feature, unless current NR understandings of landscapes are modified, the Register requires the nominator to know how much and exactly what land was “modified” or “intervened” upon in the culture’s pursuit of placing that structure on the ocean bottom—a nonsensical requirement in the case of most wrecks.

Finally, what land, if any, becomes part of the natural landscape aspect of a shipwreck landscape? Bulletin 20 does a nice job outlining boundary determinations for nearly complete hulls and isolated remains, noting that the location of each must be demarcated by measurements. That is, the guidance suggests that the ocean, lake or river bottom is not part of the archeological sites unless physical remains of the ship or its wrecking event can be found. If this idea is extended to a shipwreck landscape, this could be problematic. Think of a large naval battle with scores of ships scattered across the bottom, but great expanses of unmodified and un-littered ocean bottom between them, or a so-called ship’s graveyard, where notorious weather, tides, or topography have worked to send hundreds of ships to the bottom over the course of centuries. How do we tie the ocean bottom thematically or historically to the wrecks? Current NHL guidelines do not allow boundaries to include “buffer” zones. As such, boundaries designed to include a measured amount of land within the NHL to protect the wreck from looters or to account for possible scatters of unseen objects become problematic. Of course, the Register is remarkably flexible in allowing theories and theoretical approaches to be applied to boundary justifications. Often “reasonable, predicted, estimated, or partial boundaries” are accepted, but they must include historic, archeological, or practical justifications. With shipwreck’s enormous costs related to archeological survey to get these boundaries defined, and with the inability to predict how long those boundaries can stay defined under the landscape altering effects of tides, currents and storms, the definition of submerge landscape boundaries may require special dispensations. Because of these, and many more characteristics unique to underwater and near-shore archeological sites, I would suggest rather than working, and tweaking current NR guidelines, new guidelines and bulletins may be required to bring maritime cultural landscapes into the NR fold.

As for interpreting drowned terrestrial sites as whole or part of maritime cultural landscapes, similar considerations may need to be taken. In many cases of drowned prehistoric sites, linking the cultural items to a maritime setting may be difficult due to logistical problems and costs. For example, in Florida Paleoindian and Archaic lithic points are often found offshore, in the Gulf and Atlantic along drowned river valleys.  But whether these are associated with terrestrial, coastal or maritime landscapes is often difficult to figure out due to the limited capacity for subsurface testing. As with shipwrecks, the question arises—should the NR adhere to stringent archeological contextual demands that the rare cultural artifacts must be proven to have direct associations with a dateable submerged terrestrial environment, or should different standards be allowed for these drowned potential historic and cultural landscapes? Are drowned terrestrially oriented sites a kind of subclass of a maritime cultural landscape even if there is no evidence of the culture having been linked to the water under which the site now lies? For an historic landscape of any kind under current NR guidance, not only temporal association between cultural and natural landscapes features need be made, but also direct material and physical linkages. In the case of drowned landscapes, one might ask how essential is the linkage? After all, Criterion D demands of an archeological site or district only that it have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory. For terrestrial landscape submitted to the NR, adherence to this criterion has resulted in sites with both megafauna remains and paleo points being turned down because the archeologist could not connect the resources to a common context. Should drowned landscapes be held to the same standards?

My reading of the current NR process suggests that virtually any landscape associated with maritime resources would encounter few problems in being nominated as an historic district if criteria are met and minor guidance issues are handled. Barring any problems with owner consent, combining on- and offshore landscape features into one Westerdahlian maritime cultural landscape could certainly be facilitated in the NR process, if minor questions about the underwater landscape features are resolved. The operative question for the NRLI program becomes, I think, whether such manipulations of current underwritten and ambiguous NR guidance best serves the many historically significant archeological maritime cultural landscapes awaiting nomination, or if new clearly stated formal guidance for MCLs would more effectively serve those resources.

1 But the word “archeology” is mentioned only twice in the 14-page document, and those mentions do not discuss at all how to integrate archeological resources into nominations for standing historic properties usually nominated under Criterion C for period, master-work, or artistic distinction.

2But the Bulletin did present a potential example of an archeological landscapes in which the only above ground visible landscape feature was vegetation reflecting the historic period of interest. The potential archeological components were unobserved possible features lying underground.

3 “Landscape” Dictionary Definition: 1. an expanse of scenery that can be seen in a single view, 2. the aspect of the land that is characteristic of a particular region,” 3. grounds arranged aesthetically.

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