Underwater caves are special archaeological sites. Peter edited The Archaeology of Underwater Caves, a volume exploring karst and marine caves around the world. Caves have drawn explorers since early forays by John Leland, King Henry VIII’s antiquary, at Bath in 1545, Helisäus Rößlin’s meticulous work on ritual offerings at Niederbronn-les-Bains in 1593, and discovery of Capri’s Blue Grotto in 1606. Underwater caves were key to the development of modern underwater exploration such as Wookey Hole (1935-1946) and Émile Gagnan and Jacque-Yves Cousteau after 1943. The most exciting chapters in popular underwater books are accounts of caves dives in Cousteau’s Silent World (1954), Sheck Exley’s Caverns Measureless to Man (1994), and Dan Lenihan’s Submerged (2002). In 1966, George F. Bass, the father of nautical archaeology, wrote that underwater caves had “so far defied thoughts of proper excavation… [but] technical advances may be able to untangle the jumbled context at a future date.” In the foreword to the book Bass reconsiders this statement and announces, “that ‘future date’ has arrived.”
Underwater caves provide insight into areas critical to understanding the past, such as drowned paleolandscapes and religion spanning the Paleolithic through modern day. The Roman Servius wrote, “There is no spring that is not holy.” Indeed, Solomon was anointed king of Israel with water from the Gihon Spring, Jason and the Argonauts cast one of Argo’s anchors into the Artacie spring, Buddha was born at the Lumbini spring, Alexander the Great was proclaimed the son of Zeus-Ammon at Siwa’s sacred Spring of the Sun, and the angel Gabriel created the Zamzam spring for the infant Ishmael at Mecca. Archaeological research suggests that underwater caves hold great potential. Alfred M. Tozzer described the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá by stating, “There is perhaps no other single collection in New World archaeology that has offered so comprehensive a view of the aesthetic life of an ancient people.” Textiles from the cenote are the only surviving pre-Spanish Mayan fabrics. Elsewhere, even the most sensitive organic remains – the soft tissues from brains dating to 10,000 and 7,000 years ago- are preserved in underwater caves.
Understudied, cave sites offer rare insight and it is hoped that in the future more archaeologists will explore caverns.