The smell of chlorine fills the warm air as a couple of blurry masses move underwater. Scuba diving suits and other diving equipment hang on the wall in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation building. In one corner, silver diving tanks are lined up like tin soldiers. The pool may seem like a normal practice area for scuba divers, until further inspection reveals a cabinet labeled “Archaeology supplies.” This is where students majoring in underwater archaeology and science through the Individualized Major Program practice.
Charles Beeker, director of the Office of Underwater Science and the Academic Diving Program in HPER, said while other colleges offer graduate training in underwater archaeology, IU is the only college in the country to offer undergraduate work. While it may seem strange to offer an underwater archaeology degree in the middle of a non-coastal state, IU is known as a research university, he said.
“Why not IU?” he said. “We’ve had one of the oldest diving programs in the country ... (and) one of the best anthropology departments in the country.”
Underwater archaeology is just one subcategory of the underwater science degree, which uses scuba as a tool in a range of fields like biology or geology. Underwater archaeology is more specific, focusing on man-made materials. Other subcategories include marine biology, geology and underwater resource management, all of which, Beeker said, relate to each other. For example, he said, an archaeologist can’t bring up an artifact from the ocean without first thinking of all of the organisms living on the artifact.
Jessica Keller, a junior who works as a conservation technician in the underwater science lab for credit, was recently accepted into the individualized major program for underwater archaeology. She will be one of fewer than 10 students a year who graduate with a degree in underwater archaeology. Keller, who started at IU as a theatre major, said she chose the major because she likes the idea of discovery.
“There are so many things that aren’t found yet,” she said, which includes shipwrecks and artifacts. Keller isn’t sure what she wants to do after graduation, but she said graduate school would probably be her first choice.
Frederick Hanselmann, research associate and anthropology Ph.D. student, who also studies underwater archeology, said many students go on to study underwater archaeology further after getting an undergraduate degree.
“Everybody pretty much steers toward grad school,” he said.
He explained that underwater archaeologists, and archaeologists in general, have a greater chance of being hired to large organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a master’s degree. Some who look for a job with just a bachelor degree find jobs with Cultural Resource Management firms, which don’t pay as well. Cultural Resource Management firms work in salvage archaeology, where archaeologists go to a place that is about to be developed and try to excavate as much as they can before that happens. Also, depending on each student’s focus, they can go into the diving industry, marine conservation or biology, working on creating underwater museums of shipwrecks as well.
Beeker and anthropology professor Geoffrey Conrad sponsor students who want to major in underwater archaeology. Conrad said he enjoys sponsoring the program because he knows students are really passionate about underwater archaeology.
“I’ve seen students who’ve had undistinguished academic careers up to this point, and they come in here and it all clicks,” he said. “It’s something to get their hands on, and it’s very hands-on.”
Conrad, who is also director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, said the first student with an underwater archaeology degree graduated around 1998.
Conrad and Beeker have been working together since about 1996, when Beeker persuaded Conrad to travel to the Caribbean to look at a shipwreck Beeker was studying. Conrad said the trip grabbed his attention.
“That’s when I got hooked,” he said.
Before taking any other classes, students must get scuba certification through E370 Scuba Certification or a similar class. After that, students can take the spring semester class, HPER E471, Underwater Archaeology Techniques, which combines archaeology fundamentals with scuba diving. However, there is plenty of activity in the lab and in the pool.
The lab is a small room divided in two with lingering remnants from its previous incarnation as a weight room. On one side of the partition, artifacts from various shipwrecks rest in fish tanks and in plastic tubs with bubbling water. Books line a bookcase that makes up the partition and on the other side are computers, rolled-up maps, an informal table for students and Beeker’s desk.
Beeker, who is known to his students simply as “Charlie,” attended IU in the ’60s. He has been featured in programs on the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and The Learning Channel, especially with his work in studying shipwrecks. Senior Dylan Wickersham, who is double-majoring in underwater archaeology and environmental management, said Beeker’s knowledge is another reason underwater science is being taught in the Midwest.
“He’s been in the academic community for so long,” Wickersham said. “His passion for it, his drive, is inspiring.”
Students interested in the underwater archaeology major apply through the Individualized Major Program, present a curriculum and are interviewed by a panel. After that, the most important part, Beeker said, is to be certified in scuba diving.
“To me, the emphasis is ... taking a group of undergraduate students, giving them diving as a tool ... and putting them on a project,” he said.
Beeker said students first practice scuba diving in the HPER pool and are then taken to Mitchell Quarry in the spring to practice with simulated shipwrecks and artifacts. From there, they can apply to go on trips to the Florida Keys or the Dominican Republic to look at actual shipwrecks.
Beeker said it’s up to the students to come up with their own funds, but some students receive grants and scholarships.
Students in the underwater archaeology program are given small projects revolving around actual shipwrecks and artifacts to work on before doing their final senior-year project. Wickersham, who became interested in underwater archaeology after taking a scuba diving class with Beeker, is working on mapping a shipwreck site two hours north of San Francisco for his final project.
Measuring a shipwreck site, mapping it and working on proposals to make the site into an underwater park or museum are typical tasks, yet meaningful, Beeker said.
“(Students) are being guided on stuff that’s on the cutting edge,” he said.
Keller said pursuing an underwater archaeology degree requires adventurous, enthusiastic, hardworking students. Another crucial aspect, she added, is that underwater archaeology is the major to choose if “you don’t mind getting sand in your clothes.”