The professionalization of maritime archaeology in Finland is intimately tied to the history of the FHA, the largest governmental organ responsible for the protection of cultural heritage since the 1880s. As in many other countries, the common history of maritime archaeology and state-led heritage management starts no earlier than the mid-1900s with the increasing discovery of shipwrecks, mostly as a result of the technological advances related to diving equipment (Cleve 1961; Rosenius 1983). Some discoveries have had an important role in shaping the development of the field worldwide (e.g., Delgado 2000; Barstad 2002; Broadwater 2002). In terms of similarly important discoveries, the shared history of Finnish maritime archaeology and underwater heritage management can be said to have begun in the 1960s with the investigations of the Russian frigate St. Nikolai that sunk in 1790 during the Battle of Svensksund, close to the present-day city of Kotka in south-eastern Finland.
The wreck of St. Nikolai, although originally identified as the frigate St. Maria (Cleve 1961, 351), was discovered already in October 1948, and salvage was attempted by a German team in 1949, with destructive effects. Reflecting on the event, Christoffer Ericsson (1972, 174) laments that “[h]ere ended the sad story of amateurish trial and error”. Serious research on the site started in the early 1960s, and St. Nikolai became central to the methodological development of the discipline in Finland (Cleve 1961; Rosenius 1968; 1983; Ericsson 1972, 1975; Halme 1977; Sarvas 1977; Sorvali 1977; Mattsson 1990). The wreck became the first in Finland to be systematically documented as a collaborative effort between hobby divers and FHA archaeologists. In addition to drawing, underwater photography, photogrammetry, and 8 mm underwater filming (Fig. 1) were quickly adopted as documentation methods for St. Nikolai as well as other sites discovered in those early years (Ericsson 1970; Johnsson 1988). Many finds were lifted from the wreck after its discovery, although with little regard for their contextual information or for the ship’s constructional elements. While a great number of finds were lost forever due to non-existent conservation methods, some finds from St. Nikolai, especially cannons, grenades, and round shots (Fig. 2), also benefitted from the first successful experiments with chemical conservation by chemist and hobby diver Ora Patoharju (1965; 1975). Finds from St. Nikolai were exhibited in 1970 in the city of Kotka, and in 1971 at the Amos Anderson Art Museum in Helsinki (Ericsson and Halme 1971).
Another early discovery important for the development of maritime archaeology in Finland was the so-called Borstö I wreck in Parainen, in south-western Finland, discovered in the 1950s (Cleve 1961; Nurmio-Lahdenmäki 2005; Ehanti et al. 2012). This mid-eighteenth-century wreck was the site of Finnish–Swedish diving collaboration in the early 1960s. In 1961, close to 200 artefacts were lifted from it, including dozens of gold and silver watches and snuff boxes and a horse-drawn carriage (G. Bojner 1965, unpublished research report for the FHA). Some of the finds lifted from the water were exhibited at the National Museum of Finland in the spring of 1962 (Peltonen 1964). This may have been the first maritime archaeological exhibition organized at the National Museum, and the venue was chosen because it had an advanced alarm system to safeguard the precious gold and silver finds (Talvio 2016, 242). In 1995, equally valuable Meissen porcelain tableware was found in the wreck (Hyvönen 1997). The Borstö I wreck was first identified by Christian Ahlström (1978, 60–64) as St. Michel, and it appears in Finnish literature under that name, but subsequent research suggests that the wreck may not have been accurately identified (Alvik 2013; Kaukiainen 2020).
As important as the early research on wrecks such as St. Nikolai and Borstö I since the early 1960s was for the development of maritime archaeology and underwater heritage management in Finland, the increasing popularity of sports diving was equally significant (Halme 1976). The discovery of St. Nikolai in particular received a fair amount of attention in the media, which, coupled with the spectacular raising of the Swedish warship Vasa in 1961, led to an increase in public interest in locating and exploring underwater sites in Finland. As pointed out by Henrik Rosenius (1983, 20) in his account of the early decades of Finnish maritime archaeology, between 1961 and 1965 the number of known wrecks increased so much that it became impossible to compile a detailed list of all sites and divers’ activities on them. Activities centred around the growing number of discovered wrecks and the increasing amount of material lifted from them by individual hobby divers as well as archaeologist-led research projects were problematic from a museological point of view, namely because Finland lacked both the expertise and infrastructure to manage the findings. This actively advanced discussions that had already begun in the 1950s about the establishment of a national maritime museum that could facilitate the research and management of the growing amount of wreck-related material (Cleve 1976, 8–9; Heikkinen 1976; Talvio 2016, 287–290).
Concrete attempts at founding a centralised maritime museum were made in the early 1960s. In 1962, as a result of an initiative made by the FHA, the Finnish Ministry of Education appointed a committee to prepare the establishment of a national maritime museum (unpublished maritime museum committee report, 30 December 1963). While ambitious, the committee statement did not lead to the formation of such a museum. The main reason for the negative decision was that the FHA was not unanimous in its discussions about the museum’s establishment; infrastructural problems also existed with the planned location on the island of Suomenlinna (Cleve 1976, 10–11). In 1963, as a result of the disappointment caused by the failed plans, the Finnish Association for Maritime History (called the Maritime Museum Association until 1975) was founded by maritime museum actives to continue to advance the plan for establishing the museum (Koistinen 1976).
In 1964, Helge Jääsalo, then director of Finnish Maritime Administration and member of the maritime museum committee, proposed the maritime pilots’ barracks on the island of Hylkysaari in Helsinki as a future location for the museum (Hyvärinen and Sammallahti 1991; Fast 1996; Immonen 2016, 256; Talvio 2016, 288). As result, the maritime museum committee convened for the second time in 1964 (unpublished maritime museum committee report, 31 March 1965). Again, regardless of the committee’s suggestion to establish a maritime museum at the proposed location, the Ministry of Education decided not to follow through with the project.
However, the plans for the museum, leading to its subsequent foundation in 1981, were kept alive by the
establishment of the Bureau of Maritime Archaeology (later the Bureau of Maritime History), which was established partly as a compromise on the failed plans for a maritime museum and partly as a reaction to the legal responsibilities imposed on the FHA by the Finnish Antiquities Act (295/1963). With the act, which was put into effect in 1963, all ships that had sunk more than 100 years ago—as well as any loose finds associated with them—were brought under legal protection for the first time in the history of Finnish heritage management. Motivated by the growing number of hobby divers and activities around known underwater sites, as well as by the legal responsibilities introduced by the Antiquities Act, the Bureau of Maritime Archaeology was founded by the FHA in 1968. It would become the responsibility of the bureau to enforce the Antiquities Act as pertains to underwater sites (unpublished 1968 annual report of the FHA), but also to undertake maritime archaeological and maritime historical research.
Research conducted by the bureau has been published in its series The Bureau of Maritime Archaeology/History Report between 1969 and 1975, in The Maritime Museum Helsinki/Finland Annual Report since 1976, and as part of the Nautica Fennica series since 1976. Nautica Fennica was established as a joint publication of the bureau and the Finnish Association for Maritime History, but it has since developed into a general publication series for research in maritime archaeology, maritime ethnology, and maritime history. This is also reflected in the topics of published research. Whereas the great majority of publications deal with wrecks and their material culture, as well as with maritime history, the 2000s has seen an increase in maritime ethnology and, for example, research focused on matters of gender therein. This is also indicative of the diminishing importance of Nautica Fennica as a maritime archaeological forum, whereas the original purpose of the series was to serve as a publication for research conducted by the bureau.
Organizationally, the Bureau of Maritime Archaeology was placed directly under then state archaeologist and director of the FHA, Nils Cleve, while Christoffer Ericsson was appointed as the leader of the bureau (Cleve 1976). Cleve, who was also leader of the maritime museum committees, had an interest in underwater archaeology and maritime history. His importance to the development of Finnish maritime archaeology is highlighted by the fact that in 1975, one of the FHA’s larger research vessels was named after him (Immonen 2016, 254–255).
The Bureau of Maritime Archaeology was supposed to be a temporary organization, but with the organizational restructuring in 1972, it was made a permanent part of the FHA’s research department, only now its name was changed to Bureau of Maritime History (Cleve 1976, 12; Talvio 2016, 287). In the autumn of 1973, the bureau was relocated to the then newly renovated barracks on Hylkysaari. This facilitated the building of permanent exhibitions at the site, and after decades of planning, the Maritime Museum of Finland was finally opened to the public in 1981 (Fig. 3). The museum has always been part of the National Museum of Finland, which in turn is organizationally part of the FHA, as had been the Bureau of Maritime History.
The Maritime Museum was open for 23 years before it was temporarily closed in 2004 after the Ministry of Education decided to move the museum from Helsinki to the town of Kotka (Ministry of Education 2004). The museum’s relocation was motivated by a growing need for larger premises, and despite opposition by the museum staff, Kotka was chosen as the new location over Turku or Helsinki. In 2008, the museum reopened to visitors in the newly built Maritime Centre Vellamo building (Fig. 4; Aartomaa 2008; Suhonen 2009; Utriainen 2010). With these changes came also organizational updates. With the relocation of the museum, heritage management tasks were separated from museum work. Also, the Bureau of Maritime History was closed in 2004 and the newly established Maritime Archaeology Unit, now separated from its history with the Maritime Museum, was placed organizationally under FHA’s Archaeology Unit. The establishment of the Maritime Archaeology Unit marked the beginning of a high season in Finnish maritime archaeology and underwater heritage management, lasting from 2004 to 2011. The Maritime Archaeology Unit remained on Hylkysaari, it had a staff of approximately ten people, and it was in charge of its own budget. This made it possible to effectively combine heritage management responsibilities with actual research (Pelanne 2007).
In 2011, as part of yet another organizational restructuring at the FHA, the Maritime Archaeology Unit was closed and had to leave its maritime environment on Hylkysaari. All tasks related to the protection of underwater cultural heritage were directed to the newly formed Cultural Environment Services. This meant that the maritime archaeology branch of the FHA was no longer in charge of its own budget and instead had to compete for funding with the other branches of the Cultural Environment Services, namely archaeology and restoration and protection of the built environment. This has also led to a situation where large maritime archaeological research projects are increasingly hard to justify, and all larger projects have to be planned with external funding. On the other hand, this organizational change brings experts in many different fields under one roof, which can possibly lead to increased opportunities for organizing multidisciplinary research more efficiently and creatively.
The Antiquities Act remains in effect with minor updates and requires the protection of all underwater sites of ancient origin and wrecks of 100 years of age and older. The FHA is the sole organization in Finland in charge of the protection and management of maritime and underwater cultural heritage, but with the new museum law (314/2019, effective as of 1 January 2020) regional museums have received more responsibility in the management of the cultural heritage in their area in exchange for state funding. This also includes sites of maritime archaeological significance, but what it will do to the research of maritime and underwater heritage remains to be seen. Optimally, it could mean more opportunities within the FHA for maritime archaeological research motivated by other than management responsibilities or public outreach.