Allyson Ropp, Graduate Student Associate Member

The ACUA recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, marking a critical historical moment. It offered a chance to reflect on the organization’s past and growth over the last five decades and to have conversations to plan for 50 more years of growth in our changing world. To celebrate this momentous occasion and facilitate a dialogue between the ACUA board and the wider underwater archaeological community, the Graduate Student Associate Members hosted a panel discussion at the recent Society for Historical Archaeology’s Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology.

Before delving into the conversation, we must understand our origins. In 1959, John Huston, a retired businessman who had developed an avid interest in underwater archaeology through participation in Mediterranean research projects, saw a need for more communication in New World underwater archaeology. He organized the Council for Underwater Archaeology (CUA), an advisory committee of international leaders to develop a strong communication network. With the help of the Minnesota Historical Society, CUA held its first conference in 1963 with 23 papers covering a diverse array of topics and locations and published its first proceedings in 1964, Diving Into the Past: Theories, Techniques, and Applications of Underwater Archaeology. At this time, the CUA defined its role: to correspond with people worldwide on underwater archaeology, record sites, collect information on techniques, and publish information on the field. With Huston’s death in 1967, the CUA became inactive.

Things changed in 1970. By this time, the Society for Historical Archaeology had been formed and was hosting annual meetings. In 1970, an underwater session was held at the annual meeting, and an informal working group for underwater archaeology was created. Three years later, at the 1973 meeting, the informal meeting officially became the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology, perpetuating the ideas of the CUA. Over time, the SHA conference saw an increase in underwater archaeological presentations. This precipitated a name change to the conference in 1987, officially changing the name to the SHA Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology. 1987 also saw the ACUA become a committee of the SHA and an elected committee. Since 1987, the ACUA has expanded beyond the informal group that formed in a hotel room to include archaeologists and heritage professionals from countries worldwide and offered support for major educational and policy initiatives. Today, the ACUA is an international advisory body on underwater archaeology, conservation, and submerged cultural resources management issues. It is working to educate scholars, governments, sport divers, and the public about underwater archaeology and preserving underwater resources.

Turning 50 proved to be a critical point of introspection for the ACUA, and the Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology provided a suitable setting for discussing our past and looking toward the future. The Graduate Student Associate members brought together seven former and current board members and associate members as part of a panel to begin this discussion. The panelists included Dave Ball (Emeritus), Paul Johnston (Emeritus), Kirsten Hawley (Former Graduate Student Associate Member), Aleck Tan (Former Graduate Student Associate Member and Individual Associate Member), Jennifer McKinnon (ACUA Chair), Bert Ho (Secretary), and Maddy McAllister (ACUA Board Member). Because of the nature of the panel discussion, audience input in the form of questions, thoughts, and experiences was sought from both current and former ACUA members and the general audience.

The discussion began with panelist introductions and an overview of how each panelist became involved with the ACUA, which led them to their place today. Interestingly, most panelists had a similar story – they were students with a deep interest in underwater archaeology and wanted to make connections. But outside of attending the annual conference, they did not know how. Then, they found the ACUA. This supports a critical effort of the ACUA to engage students and support education and networking opportunities among underwater archaeologists at all career stages. For those panelists who found the ACUA later in their careers, joining ACUA provided a chance to give back to archaeology and make cross-continental connections to improve underwater archaeology as a discipline.

The philanthropic nature of these and all the ACUA Board members, panelists, and others became a central talking point concerning past impacts and future directions. The ACUA is a volunteer organization in which underwater archaeologists and heritage professionals can participate as elected members, individual members, organizational members, and general members to contribute to expanding global underwater archaeological policies, education, and methodologies. The charitable nature of the organization has led to significant accomplishments in the field, including a letter-writing campaign to champion specific legislative and jurisdictional rulings, extensive work with the SHA to host only papers at the annual conference that supported ethical archaeological practices and projects, and the continued publication of the annual conference Proceedings on Underwater Archaeology. However, the voluntary nature has its drawbacks, as the members of the ACUA hold full-time jobs in addition to supporting the ACUA. This became a critical point for thinking about the future of the ACUA – how can we leverage the volunteers we already have and gain new volunteers from the underwater archaeological community to support new initiatives, grow the capabilities of the ACUA, and expand the organizational partnerships into new corners of the world. The panelists and the board members in the audience pointed out that anyone can volunteer for the ACUA. This is an important message that came out of the panel, especially thinking about the future – volunteers of all types and with all skills, from education to grant writing, are encouraged to be involved with the ACUA! We want you to join us in our mission to educate scholars, governments, sport divers, and the public worldwide about underwater archaeology and preserving underwater resources!

Diversity was the other major topic of discussion among the panelists and the audience. Merriam-Webster defines diversity as “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements,” a basic call for variety. In the ACUA’s past, diversity first came to represent increasing the variety of countries, organizations, and positions on the board. Paul Johnston, one of our panelists and a long-serving member of the ACUA, noted that the ACUA early on worked to include diversity in geography, including the Caribbean, and specialty, including museum and conservation specialists, to address the ex-situ preservation and exhibition side of the discipline. These expansions also increased the gender diversity of the ACUA, which has gone from the representation of one or two women from the field to today, where the board is primarily comprised of women. However, as our panelists and the audience pointed out, there is much more that we can do for diversity and equality as an organization. Over the last several decades, the ACUA has created a more balanced male-female ratio; however, more work must be done to increase gender equality. Similarly, while we have stretched our reach through partnerships and the inclusion of board members from other nations (e.g., Mexico, Canada, Australia), we have plenty of work to include and support underwater archaeology in different countries, particularly the Global South. We are continually working toward racial equity within the ACUA and making space for indigenous and underrepresented groups at the table at all levels.

So, what does the mean for the ACUA for the next 50 years when we reach 100 in 2073? It means we have work to do! While our next strategic planning is being developed, our panelists and audience expressed several action items that deserve highlighting. First, we must expand our diversity to make space at the table for all groups within underwater archaeology through inclusion on the board, international partnerships and agreements, and organizational support. This diversity supports a second point – the need to extend our reach beyond higher education and professional archaeology to educational efforts for community organizations and youth programs. Community inclusion, youth education, and making space for a diverse group to sit at the table as we move forward in a world filled with wicked problems. Making space, building partnerships, and leveraging our collective skills are critical to expanding the diversity of the ACUA to be more representative of the field. The final main point that emerged was a call for all those underwater archaeologists and others passionate about the progression of the field to volunteer their time to support the growth and expansion of the ACUA. We welcome all volunteers who have time and a passion to help! Underwater archaeologists and practitioners unaffiliated with the ACUA can also carry on these messages. By promoting ethical practices in underwater archaeology, we as a field can work to make space and build community beyond the ACUA and bridge gaps to encourage a more diverse and inclusive field. As the moderator of this session, I walked out with hope, passion, and inspiration for the ACUA and what it can accomplish when we work together to support this field we love and move forward in our changing world!

Thank you to all of our panelists, past and current ACUA Board members, our SHA audience, and all those in underwater archaeology who laid the groundwork for the ACUA and have continued its growth through volunteerism through the past fifty years and beyond! To learn more about the ACUA, its mission, and potential volunteer opportunities, visit our website at or email

Categorised in: