If maritime archaeology, ‘the scientific study of the material remains of man and his activities on the sea’ (Muckelroy 1978: 4), is to be regarded usefully as a subdiscipline, then a major unifying factor must be the existence of common methodologies applicable to the study of shipwrecks irrespective of their date and location. The special conditions of work underwater are by themselves inadequate grounds for distinction, as has now long been recognized (Bass 1966). Instead it is in aspects of analysis and explanation of wreck data that the subject may be set apart.
Consideration of the nature of ships and shipwrecks suggests the groundwork for a unitary methodology. Ships as structures, or as ‘self-regulating machines’ (Muckelroy 1978: 216–19), present universal features of construction and design; common environmental and technological parameters explain the closely similar development of nautical technologies in disparate societies and seas. The usual reasons for seafaring, for trade, travel, warfare, and fishing, can be seen to create standardized assemblages of shipboard material, of comparrable forms and lading arrangement. And fundamental regularities occur in the event of shipwreck and the underwater process of site formation. As the basis for analytical tools, the models allowed by these characteristics should clearly be open to more refinement as one concentrates on the data of particular maritime activities and regions.