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The Q&A: Fritz Hanselmann

In this week's Q&A, we interview Fritz Hanselmann, chief underwater archaeologist at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

Fritz Hanselmann, the Chief Underwater Archaeologist and Director of the diving program at the Meadows Center for Water and …

With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:

Fritz Hanselmann is chief underwater archaeologist and director of the diving program at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. His research includes prehistoric deposits in springs and lakes as well as historic shipwrecks in Latin America and the Caribbean. Hanselmann is a principal investigator on a number of projects at the Center including the Monterrey Shipwreck Project in the Gulf of Mexico, the Sunken Ships of Colombia project and the Spring Lake Underwater Archaeology Project. 

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Water: First of all, can you talk to me about what underwater archaeology actually entails? It seems like your research includes a little bit of everything – from exploring shipwrecks and caves to a local lake. 

Fritz Hanselmann: Archaeology is the study of our past through the physical remains of human activity. So, underwater archaeology is basically studying that past at submerged sites – specifically shipwrecks, caves, springs, et cetera. I get asked a lot of times why archaeology is at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, you know, “Why are you there? What’s your purpose as an archaeologist?”

My answer to that is that we learn from ourselves, we learn from our past things that have been done correctly or appropriately and things that have not been done right and mistakes that have been made as to how resource usage has taken place and evolved over thousands and thousands of years. We can look at the past and learn from that and say, “What are we doing now that we can improve on and what did we do wrong back then?” So that we can have a better overall view of where to go in the future with our water usage. 

Trib+Water: Could you give me some specific examples of that? Maybe a specific project that you feel really contributed to that mission?

Hanselmann: Our mission, obviously, is to raise awareness about water, protect our aquatic resources, investigate and manage them as well. There are a couple of different things that are at play with what we do in archaeology at the Meadows Center. One of them is the Spring Lake underwater archaeology project where we’re working in conjunction with the Center for Archaeological Studies. What we’re doing is conducting an archeological survey where what we’re doing is taking core samples of the lakebed.

What that does is that gives us an idea of the paleoenvironment and change over time. In looking at the depositional history, you insert a core and you pull it out and you can see a snapshot of time like what’s happened over the past 13,000-some odd years in the spring. And we can see when there have been flood events, we can see when there has been high water, we can see when there have been droughts.

These cores are three-inch-thick aluminum pipes and basically in every single one of those cores we found an artifact as well. Not only are we learning more about the environment in which people lived several thousand years ago, we’re also finding out that people were here almost on a constant basis and it's because of the fact that the water is there. It’s because of the fact that the springs are there and the San Marcos river is there.

Trib+Water: What sort of artifacts have you uncovered?

Hanselmann: Well, the second component of archaeology is using it as sort of an attention getter. We all love shipwrecks. Everybody is fascinated by shipwrecks. So it’s one of those things where, for example, in Panama we’re searching for ships that Henry Morgan lost in 1671 prior to attacking Panama City. We found some cannons and we found a Spanish colonial ship during the search.

And we’re looking for shipwrecks in Colombia and we have really cool deepwater potential privateer shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico in 4,500 feet of water. So what we do is we use these projects to one, learn more about our past, but two, use them as attention getters to call people to say, “Oh, this shipwreck is really cool, look at what these guys are doing. Huh, it’s at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, what else are they doing? Oh, wow, they’re flying unmanned aerial vehicles to map aquatic ecosystems and they have this massive volunteer base, green team initiatives. Man, I’d like to be apart of that.”

It’s almost like archaeo-diplomacy. We’re using archeology to be that hook to get people to look at other issues that are peripherally related or integrally related as it is with Spring Lake and looking at resource usage over time and environmental change over time. 

Trib+Water: Does that mean there is frequent collaboration when it comes to your research?

HanselmannWe absolutely have all sorts of collaborations in the archaeological process – here on campus with the Center for Archaeological Studies, with the University of Texas’ Institute for Geophysics, CNC Technologies. We’ve been doing sub-bottom profile surveys of the lakebed in anticipation of the core sampling, that’s what we’ve done on campus. I have project partners in the Gulf of Mexico, Panama and Colombia that are international universities, foreign governments, NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) office of Ocean Exploration and Research, NOAA’s office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the National Park Service.

And so all of our projects have a very, very collaborative nature. As an explorer, gone are the days of the lone, sole explorer in the pith helmet and the 50 people that you don’t know that helped him get to where he was. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, but he didn’t do it by himself. I think in science, scientific endeavors and exploration now, teamwork is key, especially given certain financial situations and lack of funding. So teamwork is absolutely crucial and we have collaboration on pretty much all of our projects. 

Trib+Water: How do you actually conduct your research? Are modern archaeological efforts more reliant on technology or are you still out diving everyday? 

HanselmannModern archaeology is kind of a mix of high and low tech and I can give you a few examples of how that works. In Panama and Colombia we go out with a magnetometer to survey the sea floor. Basically a magnetometer is a large-scale metal detector and you set it to the geographic region's magnetic signature and it picks up what we call anomalies, which are basically magnetic differences in that signature.

So when you’re looking for historic shipwrecks, you’re looking for those big iron artifacts – the cannons, anchors, et cetera – and the magnetometer picks those up. So we’ll drive a boat for days to survey and get an understanding of what potential resources might be out there and then we can analyze that data and then we’ll go back and do diver vigil surveys just to see if we can visually ground what is making that anomaly in the geomagnetic data. So that’s one example. It’s this high tech combined with, we’re going to just go dive and look to see if we can find it. Sometimes we’ll find things – I mean you can find things as small as a bullet, you can find a shipwreck – and sometimes things are just buried under the sand and mud.

Another example of high and low tech is actually kind of humorous. We’re working on the Monterrey Shipwreck Project in the Gulf of Mexico and since it's so deep, we have to use ROVs. Well the ROVs are tens of millions of dollars of an investment in the technology to get to those hard to reach areas of the ocean. We have these three shipwrecks that are most likely from the early 19th century.

So we have this multi-million dollar manipulator arm, but we have to make up artifact boxes and things on the fly as we were out there based on the measurements and the estimates we were getting from the ROV work below, so you have this multi-million dollar manipulator arm with a ten dollar dustpan and we use the other arm to pick up a 300-year-old telescope to put in the dustpan to carry over to an artifact box. Similar to bike handles to recover a musket, we recovered muskets from this shipwreck that was 4,500 feet deep. There’s still sort of this adventurous component and the need to invent on the fly and adapt as you’re out exploring and doing these things.

Trib+Water: Despite those changes, do you think there will always be these more romantic notions of exploration and treasure hunting associated with the field? 

HanselmannHere’s the issue. Archaeology is not treasure hunting. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions of our field, that people assume they’re the same and it really isn’t. The big difference is the fact that we’re interested in information, we’re interested in the history. We’re interested in what we can learn. We’re interested in how the ship was built, where it came from, why it was being used, what was its function, how were the people living on board.

We’re not interested in selling artifacts. To us, that’s considered unethical. Treasure hunters are out to make a profit whereas we’re in it for the science and that’s the vast difference. The problem is that sometimes the methods look pretty similar to the general public. Unfortunately, sometimes this happens with certain TV shows – the general public doesn’t quite get that there is this vast difference between treasure hunting and archaeology.

I humbly believe that we as archaeologists really need to embrace the media more and do a better job getting our message out there because what we do and what we learn is something that everybody can learn from. That’s something that archaeology can give to the world, to the general public. It’s new information and new understanding about where we came from and who we are. 

Trib+Water: Could you talk more about this project you’re working on closer to home at Spring Lake? How did that project come to be and what sort of things are you still looking for? 

HanselmannArchaeological research first started at Spring Lake in the late 1970s to the early 1980s when Dr. Joel Shiner from SMU came down and he started doing some dives there and had a site where he excavated for a number of field sessions. Throughout those field sessions, he acquired thousands and thousands of artifacts.

Unfortunately, he passed away prior to being able to analyze all of them, so with the Center for Archaeological Studies, as part of this ongoing program, we began analysis of the diagnostic artifacts that Shiner excavated 20 to 30 years ago. This is what he had been saying back then, that Spring Lake is possibly the longest continuously inhabited site in North America, and that means that somebody has always been there.

The reason that we’re looking at that and thinking about that as a hypothesis is due to the fact that that collection of artifacts, every single period, time period or culture of Texas pre-history is represented. From Clovis 13,000 years ago to Native Americans a few hundred years ago. Someone has been here, doing something on the banks of the San Marcos River around Spring Lake for almost 14,000 years. So that’s one aspect of Spring Lake that’s just mind-blowing.

The other aspect is to look at, OK, we have this resource and that’s why people came here. That’s why we can pause at this notion of the longest continually inhabited site because we have the water, the water is there. It draws people to it, it draws animals to it – it’s all interconnected. 

Trib+Water: And are you directly involved in all of these different projects? You’re going out and doing the day to day work?

HanselmannYep, that’s me. 

Trib+Water: Is there a particular project or type of project that you find more enjoyable or significant? Be it looking at shipwrecks or working at Spring Lake?

HanselmannThat’s a tough question. I think they all have varying degrees of significance depending on what you’re doing. To the people in Colombia, the Colombia shipwreck project is phenomenal because it’s new and it’s something they haven’t really done much of. So it’s important to them.

I think the Spring Lake project is insanely cool because we have a dive site and an underwater archaeology site right on campus. I can walk out of my office and just jump right into the water and start diving and working. Plus the fact that its in Central Texas and the phenomenal history that’s associated with it is great.

I also like the shipwrecks projects. The short answer is that I like it all. The thing with the shipwrecks is that they’re magical. You get there and you can uncover something, you uncover a part of a wreck and you’re the first person to have touched that in (hundreds of) years, so archaeology really gives us a physical connection with history and with our past.

Archaeology makes history tangible.

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