How does someone become an underwater archaeologist? For Victor T. Mastone, it started as a child, when he used to dig holes in the hopes of finding buried treasure underneath the porch of his family’s home in Revere. But his favorite past time was to go on on a day trip to the ocean, beach combing for driftwood and shells, basking at the intersection of the land and sea. His first professional project as an archeologist was at the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park. When the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources (MBUAR) needed a full-time archeologist three decades ago, Mastone says he was “in the right place at the right time.” The state agency was established in 1973 and had an all-volunteer workforce until the Whydah controversy in the 80s. The 18th century pirate ship that sank off Cape Cod stirred passionate ethical and legal debates about how archeologists should deal with “treasure hunters.” Mastone helped write legislation aimed at preserving and protecting the Commonwealth’s underwater heritage.
Today, the permitting rules and other restrictions apply to more than 3,500 shipwrecks, submerged aircraft, wharves, bridges, and Native American sites in Massachusetts. “The public has these images of intact vessels under the water and pirate treasure everywhere, but there aren’t as many of them as you might think. It’s up to me as an archeologist to interpret what happened and tell the story,” says Mastone, 63, whose official title is director and chief archaeologist of MBUAR. He encourages the public to report any ocean or shoreline finds, whether an old bottle or piece of wood. If the object is not associated with a specific archeological site, such as a shipwreck, the artifact can be kept. “Finders-keepers is sometimes true, except there’s also the process of paperwork involved,” he says.
The Globe spoke with Mastone about the mysteries and wonders of the state’s submerged “bottomlands.”
“It’s incredibly exciting that there’s always the potential to find something historically earth-shattering in our inland and coastal waters. Sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting for the sands to shift or a diver to come upon an object on the ocean bottom. People should report what they find — it’s not that we want to take relics from them, but to document and protect resources of historical value. We’re trying to gather information and fill in the gaps in our local history.
“I work with discrete time periods and temporal connections — a shipwreck happens once, and then it’s over, whereas on land there’s usually a range of time or circumstances.
“One gentleman was doing beach clean-up in Westport when he found what looked like a rusty piece of pipe. He picked it up, applied for an exemption to keep and conserve it, and we gave him ownership. When he brought the item to be professionally conserved, it turned out to be a British musket from the American revolution. It’s not unusual to find objects like this randomly deposited on the beach, whether it’s anchors, watches, pewter tankards, or metal buttons. It’s up to me to drive out there and decide whether it’s shipwreck material. But many amateur sleuths or archeologists don’t realize there’s so much more involved than snatching up ‘treasure.’ There’s a lot of work and science to protecting our nonrenewable scientific resources.
“One of my favorite finds was a 17th century Indian dugout canoe found by a guy who liked to collect bottles and dive in Lake Qunisigamond in Worcester. It was discovered in murky waters, about 26 feet down and seemed to be a hollowed out log. I was very skeptical, to be honest. He received a permit and we came out with a drop camera to take a better look. It was the most incredible feeling of discovery when we realized that it was indeed a Nipmuc Indian native craft, preserved in the water. Since then, other researchers and I are working collaboratively to document and plan for proper recovery of these boats, since there were three of them.
“Today, I still like to dig holes around my house. I laugh to myself because sometimes I throw a wrapper into a pit and bury it to confuse future archeologists. What are they going to think when they find this? Maybe 500 years from now they’ll think this is a ceremonial site.”