Sea monsters! Shipwrecks! Sea shanties!

Friday 17. December 2021 | By: Catherine Chambers

Coastal culture and heritage were the central focus of the course "Maritime Anthropology" that I taught the last week before winter break. The class is an elective for the Coastal Communities and Regional Development and Coastal and Marine Management programs, and is also open for guest students of all backgrounds. 

In a whirlwind tour of anthropology, we covered visual anthropology, maritime and underwater archaeology, environmental anthropology, ethnomusicology, and folklore. Topics included local and Indigenous knowledge, folk weather beliefs, UNESCO, shipwreck surveying, museums, sea monsters, knot tying, cultural connections to sand and spring break culture, driftwood, placenames, boat building heritage, and much more.

We were lucky to welcome guest lecturers with expertise in Icelandic culture and heritage projects connected to the sea, while the students brought in their own expertise from around the world. We also welcomed Eiríkur Valdimarsson from the University of Iceland Research Centre at Strandir. He discussed with us his research on weather folklore and the role of local weather knowledge in Icelandic society. We also had a film screening from the Rekaviður project which is an interdisciplinary look at the culture and biology related to driftwood in Iceland and its connection to climate change.

The Museum of Everyday Life in Ísafjörður is run by anthropologists who view it as a research project more than a tourist activity. Here we discussed ethnographic films and the goal of anthropology to let people tell their own stories.


Dr. Ragnar Eðvarðsson and Alex Tyas, PhD candidate, both from the University of Iceland Research Centre of the Westfjords gave guest lectures on archaeology and the specifics of underwater archeology in Iceland. The students practiced dating a ship wreck from its remains, and then went outside to practice the underwater archaeological methods of baseline and trilateration surveys.


We visited the Ísafjörður Regional Museum to explore how tangible maritime culture is presented in museums. We had a nice discussion on whose voices are lacking from maritime museums, such as women and immigrants, and how this can be changed. The museum is beautifully decorated for Christmas, so the students also got a crash course on Icelandic Christmas culture (Yule Lads!) plus a quick lesson on polar bears (always hike with someone slower than you).


Ísafjörður is rich in music culture so it only made sense to visit Rachelle Elliott at the local music school. Her doctoral research is on Icelandic choral performance, and she gave the students an overview of the history of Icelandic music culture and representations of coastal cultures in music around the world. But any visit to the music school would not have been complete without trying a few songs out ourselves, including “Sigling” or "sailing," which is sung at the UW graduation celebration every year. The first lines are "Sea, blue sea - it calls to me. What lies beyond the horizon?"


Another main topic in the course was the consideration of knowledge, how we know what we know about the ocean and how that knowledge is produced. An example of this is that it is much easier to learn to tie a knot from another human than it is to learn from a book, so of course the students had to spend some time learning knots in class!

As the research manager at UW, my main tasks involve research projects and other collaborations, so it was a nice change of pace to get to know the students and share my passion for understanding the many cultures connected to the sea. One main thread throughout the course was the danger of a single story when considering human relationships with the ocean. Anthropology should aim to highlight the diversity of stories, rather than take a reductionist approach of presenting only majority voices that might eclipse important culture connections to the sea.