Pencil and wash portrait of a warship in broadside view, with a flag flying from the stern at right, and only the lower portions of its masts visible. At top left is a separate drawing of a Union Jack.
© National Maritime Museum
© National Maritime Museum

To Unpath’d Waters, Undream’d Shores

Connecting the UK’s marine and maritime collections through partnership.

‘Unpath’d Waters’ is a major project led by Historic England which aims to discover how best to link up the rich, extensive and varied collections relating to our marine and maritime heritage.

It is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is one of five Discovery Projects within the ‘Towards a National Collection’ initiative. It focuses on collections with a digital component, but also looks at the issues of connecting physical or analogue collections.

An extensive collaboration

The three-year, £2.9m project is being delivered by one of the largest research collaborations we have ever forged, bringing together:

  • 8 universities across the UK (Southampton, Portsmouth, Bradford, and York in England, Bangor in Wales, Ulster in Northern Ireland, and Glasgow and St Andrews in Scotland)
  • 4 Independent Research Organisations (ourselves, Historic Environment Scotland, Museum of London Archaeology, and the National Maritime Museum)
  •  5 Collaborating Organisations (Mary Rose Trust, Maritime Archaeology Trust, Nautical Archaeology Society, the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales, and Wessex Archaeology)
  • In addition to these 17 organisations, we have 8 strategic partners: the Marine Management Organisation, Cadw (the Welsh government heritage arm), Department of Communities (Northern Ireland), Manx Heritage, the Protected Wrecks Association, Lloyd’s Register Foundation, the Corporation of Lloyd’s of London, and the British Geological Survey.

The objectives of the project

Running from November 2021 for 36 months, 'Unpath’d Waters' will fulfil the core objectives of the ‘Towards a National Collection’ programme. These are to:

  • Carry out world-class interdisciplinary research in key thematic areas
  • Grow and diversify audiences by introducing the public to new ways of engaging with the collections
  • Devise technological and organisational solutions to the barriers between online collections and catalogues
  • Deliver benefit to collections and other heritage organisations of varied scale and geographic location, including organisations beyond metropolitan centres
  • Create a sound evidence base for the future development of a virtual ‘national collection’
  • Produce evidence-based policy recommendations to inform the delivery of the relevant DCMS strategic objectives and those of the devolved nations.

By doing so, we aim to discover ways of dissolving barriers between collections by looking at technological, organizational and other issues that stand in the way of an integrated virtual ‘national collection’ for the UK; enhance research capability to address cross-disciplinary research using collections; and develop more inclusive public access through major research-driven public-facing outputs – which we are currently calling the ‘UNPATH Portal’ and the ‘UNPATH Navigator’. The project is tackling its research objectives through a number of different strands of activity.

First, we needed to gather information (metadata) about the range of collections we wanted to explore. To make sure that we can cross-link these data we needed a common framework (ontology) which could be used to join data fields together: that has now been created. The kinds of collections we are looking at are very varied, including the national inventories for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (plus, through our partnership, the Isle of Man), marine archaeological investigations, borehole data, findspots, images, museum artefacts and more. Access to many of these datasets have now been made available through the 'UNPATH Portal', developed by the Archaeology Data Service (but please note this is not a permanent service – it is a trial area acting as a proof of concept. For active use for planning purposes, please refer to the relevant authorities).

Next, we are interested in how we can use Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to see how we can improve and enrich these data, and how we might find new links between them which previously could not be found easily, or indeed at all. The University of Southampton has led on this work and has already begun to unlock the potential of these relatively new technologies to enrich our national inventories through tagging information held within text fields, thus making cross searching and analysis far swifter and more productive.

We want to test these emerging tools in real-world research scenarios, so we have three separate activities doing just that.

  • The first is called ‘People and the Sea’ and is being led by the University of Portsmouth with help from the Mary Rose Trust, the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network, the Nautical Archaeology Society, the Maritime Archaeology Trust and Wessex Archaeology. It is looking at how people can engage with and appreciate the significance of wrecks and their associated finds which are displayed in museums compared with those which are still on the seabed. It is focusing on the Solent/Channel area. To this end we have used some of the Mary Rose collections as the basis for a student hackathon to trial how people might wish to engage with collections from the wreck. This will be a chance to free-think all sorts of digital solutions to a problem as part of a group.
  • The second – ‘Science and the Sea’ – is aimed at using collections to help identify wrecks in the Irish Sea whose locations are known from surveys, but whose identities are either entirely unknown or likely to be incorrect. Bangor University is leading this work, aided by the University of Ulster and the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales. Linked collections relating to the wrecks themselves, the seabed and water conditions, the construction records and loss data can all help to obtain a precise identification. This can help not only with heritage management but also in assessing potentially hazardous cargoes.
  • Our third research trial involves ‘Lands Beneath the Sea’. Led by the University of Bradford, this is developing a detailed dynamic model of the prehistoric landscapes inundated by the North Sea between 18,000 and 5,000 years ago. Researchers and the public will be able to access this model to interact, gaming-style, with imaginary prehistoric populations and to explore the effects of massive climate change. This has a more practical side, as we intend that the model can be used to help identify likely areas of prehistoric activity in the context of increasing development of the seabed represented by, for example, windfarms.

The results of these research activities will all feed into our key piece of work which trials access to the linked collections through something we are currently referring to as the UNPATH Navigator. This will be co-designed with three target audiences: cross-disciplinary researchers, communities culturally and/or physically distant from the sea, and visually impaired people. The last of these will be a particularly exciting challenge as so much of marine and maritime heritage is visual in nature. We will be working with VocalEyes and other organisations to ensure that what we create will work.

Our work with our audiences will be fully evaluated to ensure that the lessons we are learning are properly evidenced and can be confidently used to help develop future policies for creating a fully integrated national collection

About the author

Name and role

Barney Sloane

Title and organisation
National Specialist Services Director at Historic England
Barney has extensive experience of working in the Cultural Heritage sector, including strategic management, commissioning research and archaeological survey. He is a Fellow of Society of Antiquaries of London and on the Board of the European Archaeological Council.

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