Maritime archaeology (also known as marine archaeology) is a discipline within archaeology as a whole that specifically studies human interaction with the sea, lakes and rivers through the study of associated physical remains, be they vessels, shore side facilities, port-related structures, cargoes, human remains and submerged landscapes. A specialty within maritime archaeology is nautical archaeology, which studies vessel construction and use. As with archaeology as a whole, maritime archaeology can be practised within the historical, industrial, or pre-historical periods. An associated discipline, and again one that lies within archaeology itself, is underwater archaeology, which studies the past through any submerged remains be they of maritime interest or not. An example from the pre-historic era would be the examination of remains submerged in ancient wells or cenotes, or of Indigenous sites now lying underwater yet well away from the sea or inland waters. The study of submerged aircraft lost in lakes, rivers or in the sea is an example from the historical or industrial era. Many specialist sub-disciplines within the broader maritime and underwater archaeological categories have emerged in recent years.
Maritime archaeological sites often result from shipwrecks or sometimes seismic catastrophes, and thus represent a moment in time rather than a slow deposition of material accumulated over a period of years, as is the case with port-related structures ( such as piers, wharves and jetties) where objects are lost or thrown off structures over extended periods of time. This fact has led to shipwrecks often being described in the media and in popular accounts as 'time capsules'.
Archaeological material in the sea or in other underwater environments is typically subject to different factors than artifacts on land. However, as with land archaeology what survives to be investigated by modern archaeologists can often be a tiny fraction of the material originally deposited. A feature of maritime archaeology is that despite all the material that is lost, there are occasional rare examples of substantial survival, from which a great deal can be learned, due to the difficulties often experienced in accessing the sites.
There are those in the archaeology community who see maritime archaeology as a separate discipline with its own concerns (such as shipwrecks) and requiring the specialized skills of the underwater archaeologist. Others value an integrated approach, stressing that nautical activity has economic and social links to communities on land and that archaeology is archaeology no matter where the study is conducted. All that is required is the mastering of skills specific to the environment in which the work occurs.