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Naufragic Architecture and a Theory of Failure

Designed to move across water, ships sink when they are unable to perform their anthropogenic function; in other words, when they fail as watertight works of nautical architecture. Yet the topside cycles of repair and refitting do not end even as the wrecked ship is absorbed into the underwater environment. Marine colonizers repurpose the structure according to their own designs, in a process of ‘naufragic architecture’, that produces an animate, corporeal machine (in Levi Bryant’s terms). This extrahuman, machinic architecture confuses UNESCO's domains of ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ heritage. Further, while viewing underwater heritage as a mere ‘resource’ commodifies the site for potential human extraction, learning how the site itself works for or against the generation of biodiverse ecosystems would lead to more productive archaeological interactions. Naufragic architecture depends on the toxicity of construction materials, cargo, and surrounding seafloor, so as works-in-progress, shipwrecks should be considered sources—of contamination, biodiversity, nutrients, knowledge—rather than merely resources.

Studies shipwrecks and submerged prehistoric landscapes

Sci-Art, Art History, Colonialism, Archaeology, Studio Art, Interdisciplinary Studies, Critical Methods of Inquiry

Nautical Archaeology, Archaeological Science, Archaeological Theory, Art History, Studio Art, Speculative Philosophy, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Speculative Fiction


Sara Rich is a maritime archaeologist, art historian, artist, and author of speculative fiction. She is currently Assistant Professor of Honors and Interdisciplinary Studies at Coastal Carolina University. Her academic books include Shipwreck Hauntography: Underwater Ruins and the Uncanny (Amsterdam University Press, 2021), Closer to Dust (Punctum, 2021), Shipwrecks and Provenance (Archaeopress, 2018), and Cedar Forests, Cedar Ships (Archaeopress, 2017). She is frantically finishing manuscripts for Contemporary Philosophy for Maritime Archaeology (co-edited with Peter Campbell; Sidestone, 2022) and Mushroom (series Object Lessons; Bloomsbury, 2022). She tries and mostly fails to post new work on, her barebones website (where you can also find art and fiction), and Twitter @wracksandruins (where you can mostly find photos of her dogs and swamp romps).

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