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She Digs: Jennifer McKinnon

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She Digs is a new monthly column from Secrets of the Dead featuring some of our favorite women in the archaeology field. This month, we met with underwater archaeologist Dr. Jennifer McKinnon. With a background in maritime archaeology, Dr. McKinnon has worked in the U.S., Australia, Pacific islands and Europe on sites ranging from the Spanish Colonial era to World War II.

We sat down with her to learn more about how archaeology works underwater, the fascination behind shipwrecks, and the recent debate over the retrieval of the Titanic’s radio.

By: Tess Brock 


Secrets of the Dead: Tell us a little bit more about your background and how you got started in the field.

Dr. McKinnon: I have wanted to be an archaeologist since middle school. I love old things, objects that have a past. When I realized archaeology was a job, I asked for Archaeology Magazine from my parents. I also had a great high school humanities teacher that encouraged me and promoted my love of history, objects and archaeology. So, I knew what I wanted to go to college for. I went straight into an Anthropology degree program and started doing terrestrial archaeology, digging in the dirt. We did our first field school in St. Augustine, Florida, on the landing of Pedro Menendez, who was the Spaniard that founded St. Augustine in 1565. While we were looking for his landing site, I remember standing adjacent to the water thinking it’s cool that we’re digging on the land, but how did we get here? How did his ships get here? How did they actually get to St. Augustine? That was fascinating to me.

Secrets of the Dead: With underwater archaeology, you are presented with a lot of additional challenges that aren’t at hand with terrestrial archaeology. Can you walk us through the process of finding and excavating a shipwreck?

Dr. McKinnon: One of the best ways to find sites is to ask locals. Shipwrecks are in their own backyards. They are in their waters. As an archaeologist, I don’t assume that I am the expert that knows everything, because I think communities know a lot about their waters. They’re the ones that fish, swim and utilize that space. Talking to locals, talking to local fishers, talking to boat captains and dive operators are all great starts if you’re looking for a specific shipwreck or even just in a general area looking for shipwrecks.

After doing the community work, and you have a sense of what could be in the water, you can start using the equipment. You can use things like a magnetometer or a side-scan sonar or the sub-bottom profiler, which are all different pieces of equipment that allow you to see below the seabed to detect various objects like a cannon or an anchor or an aircraft for example. Once you find a site, you are driven by what research questions you have. Whether it’s “I want to know something about how the Spanish constructed their ships” or “I’m interested in working on recovering a lost service member from World War II,” there are different goals that guide you when investigating a site.

Secrets of the Dead: Is there a particular piece of equipment that brings you the most excitement, or that you get the most enjoyment out of using it?

Dr. McKinnon: What I like to use the most if I’m looking for sites is a side-scan sonar. It uses sound to give you an image of the seabed. You’re on the top side watching what they call a waterfall, and you’re able to see the images coming through. That moment when you realize “there is something there” is super exciting because you see something different than what’s natural.

Using a dredge is also super fun. That would be my favorite tool for underwater. It’s essentially an engine that’s running on the boat that has these hoses that take in water and create a suction. You use your hands to fan sand into a hose to see what is under the surface. And so that can be super exciting. You have a sense of accomplishment, just like you do when you vacuum a room. It’s very exciting to be able to see the objects uncover right before your very eyes.

An example of a dredge.

Secrets of the Dead: Does it feel more rewarding or different when you find something underwater versus on land?

Dr. McKinnon: When you dive underwater your primary concern, if you’re just a diver, is to stay alive. You’re in a foreign environment. You’re breathing air. Underwater archaeologists are combining that with science, and I think the reward starts to come into play. You’re like, OK, so I’m staying alive, but I’m also doing science underwater, and I’m also collecting data. I think that’s a very rewarding feeling. Any time you go in and dive, you know all the things that could go wrong, but you go in with a mission to collect data. When you come out, you get a feeling of euphoria because A) you’re alive and B) more than likely you collected great data. The danger element is always kind of there. Just be prepared.

Secrets of the Dead: When you find a ship or something bigger where marine life has adapted around it, what is your approach?

Dr. McKinnon: The fascinating thing about shipwrecks is they are our oldest artificial reefs. They attract all of this biological life to them, and they’re very much integrated into the system already. Being an archaeologist, I have to understand how that whole system functions. The biology can affect the shipwreck, as the shipwreck can affect the biology. Some of the research that I do is looking at corrosion and levels of decay to find out how long shipwrecks are going to be around, especially World War II shipwrecks that are iron and are in a constant state between corroding and not corroding. Understanding the environment of a shipwreck and its impact is critical for us to understand long-term how sites are going to be preserved over time, and if we need to develop or create any strategies that are going to help us maintain those in a sustainable way for divers, fishing or just general enjoyment.

Secrets of the Dead: Recently the Titanic has been in the news as new plans to retrieve the radio have sparked a debate on human remains at the sites of shipwrecks. Where do you stand?

Dr. McKinnon: Titanic has always been sort of a pressure point between archaeologists and a community that wants to make money off the disaster. It is no doubt that the Marconi radio is an interesting feature, but you could probably identify several things on that ship that are interesting features. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those objects need to be recovered. You have to return back to what is the purpose of this. From an archaeological standpoint, I would ask why do we need to recover it? Is there a question it’s going to answer that we don’t have an answer to?  We will lose the structural integrity, but also the archaeological context of that area as well. If there are human remains or lost members in that particular area, we have the potential to disturb that context and those human remains and the last resting place of those folks.

So, from archaeologists’ perspective, this is just another way for people who are interested in making money off of the Titanic to make more money. To generate excitement, pull an object out, conserve it, put it into the rotation, travel it around, make more of the exhibits. For archaeologists, we always return back to our core questions. What are the research questions? What are the pluses and minuses behind the recovery of this object? Do they outweigh the negatives? For archaeologists, we don’t necessarily see that there’s going to be that much benefited or gained from recovering the object from that site. There’s more to be lost than there is to be gained.

Secrets of the Dead: Why do you think people are so fascinated by shipwrecks?

Dr. McKinnon: People are excited by the element of danger, disaster, and loss. There is a whole kind of study or mindset called dark tourism where we’re excited about sites that have a dark past. That’s why people go to haunted houses or World War II sites or sites of massacres. There’s that kind of fascination with some of the darker elements or the adventure and tragedy of shipwrecks.

It’s also sort of out of sight, out of mind. I compare our oceans to outer space in that we are really excited about what’s out there, but we don’t know what’s out there. Our oceans are that sort of deep space for us. It’s an area of exploration where we can uncover more things than what we know already. The sort of space exploration element of discovery is also what people are drawn to.

Secrets of the Dead: What projects are you excited about right now?

Dr. McKinnon: I’m super excited about a program called the Task Force Dagger Foundation that I’ve been working on over the last three years. They’re a nonprofit that assists Special Forces operators who come out and need to transition into civilian life.  I got connected with them, and we created a program called the Joint Recovery Team, which is taking groups of veterans and training them in underwater archaeology and involving them in the fieldwork.

For the past two summers, I have trained veterans and taken them out to the Western Pacific and Saipan and worked on World War II sites. There are over 80,000 missing people from WWII, a large majority of those are in the Pacific, so we are working with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to recover lost service members overseas and repatriate them home. The joint recovery team is like a double entendre. The veterans are recovering their identity and purpose, while also recovering lost service members. And so that’s been something that has really given the archaeology that I do some purpose. It’s nice to ask questions about history and answer questions related to history, but it’s meaningful when you can actually connect that with a present, modern human need and work with a community.

Secrets of the Dead: How can archaeology benefit from more women in the field?

Dr. McKinnon: When I first started 20-something years ago, there were fewer women in maritime archaeology than there are now, and it was definitely male-dominated. All of the technology that we use was developed by the military, and we adopted those for use in the water. They have this history of being used by men, and men focus a lot on technology and their toys. There was this “boys’ toys” machismo mindset that you had to be tough to work in the field.

That has slowly started to phase out, and I think that is the benefit of having more women in the field of maritime archaeology and underwater archaeology. Having women has allowed our field to expand beyond just being fascinated with technology and finding shipwrecks. We have broadened the way that we ask questions about the past. We’re interested in the people that used the ships. It’s not just about finding the ships, but it’s also about asking questions about the humans who actually built and sailed the ships.  That allows us to bring women and children alive in the maritime sphere where they have largely gone unnoticed or unaddressed. Correcting a history that has long been male-focused is part of what women bring to being in the field.

I also think we’re great as mentors for women coming up because if you don’t see a lot of women in the field, you tend to think that you don’t belong there either. Being able to be a female underwater archaeologist promotes the idea that women do belong in this space and can do it. There are a lot of female maritime or marine biologists. I looked to them as examples. Sylvia Earle is a very famous marine biologist, and I was always sort of fascinated with her research. So, looking to those women that were already in the marine sciences was something that I looked towards.

Secrets of the Dead: What is one piece of advice you have for young women interested in archaeology?

Dr. McKinnon: Go for it. I don’t think that there are as many obstacles as there once were before. My advice would be to meet some maritime archaeologists that are in the fields and, specifically, for women to seek out the women that are out there and connect with them, ask them questions and seek their advice on paths forward. It’s a small field. We all know each other very well. Once you make one connection, you have made 10 to 12 connections because that person can put you in touch with whomever they can find.  I would say reach out to somebody, talk to them, and understand that the barriers have been brought down a little bit. The opportunity is there.


Special thanks to Dr. McKinnon for talking with us! For more information and links to her work visit her website, and keep up with her on Twitter