New European Marine Board report recommends exploration of sea-submerged settlements abandoned by our ancestors.
A specialist group of European researchers are studying what remains of prehistoric settlements, which are now submerged beneath our coastal seas. Some of these submerged sites are tens of thousands of years old. From the progressive discovery and analysis of these prehistoric remains, a new scientific field has developed, combining the expertise from many disciplines including archaeology, oceanography and the geosciences. The new field is called Continental Shelf Prehistoric Research.
This fast evolving research field is the focus of a new European Marine Board (EMB) position paper entitled ‘Land Beneath the Waves: Submerged Landscapes and Sea-Level Change’. The paper explains how during the successive ice ages of the past 1 million years, the seal level decreased at times by up to 120m, and the exposed area of the continental shelf added 40% to the land area of Europe; a terrain inhabited by vegetation, fauna and people. Consequently, many of the remains and artefacts of European’s prehistory are now underwater. Considering that pre-humans inhabited the Black Sea coast 1.8 million years ago, the coast of northern Spain over 1 million years ago and; the coast of Britain at least 0.8 million years ago, the submerged land contains some of the earliest routes from Africa into Europe, and the areas where people survived during the multiple Ice Ages.
Over 2,500 submerged prehistoric artefact assemblages, ranging in age from 5,000 to 300,000 years, have been discovered in the coastal waters and open sea basins around Europe. Only a few have been properly mapped by divers, or assessed for preservation or excavation. To fully understand how prehistoric people coped and responded to changing sea level, researchers combine examinations of these deposits with palaeoclimate models, reconstructions of ice-cap, and sea level curves, and sophisticated survey and excavation techniques.
The EMB paper reports that seabed prehistoric remains are being demolished through natural erosion and industrial disturbance. The paper stresses that Europe’s submerged prehistory needs to be studied at a sea basin scale, and integrated at a European level, which cannot be funded adequately by universities and national agencies alone. Compliance with the UNESCO convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage, and other treaties and directives, can only be ensured by collaboration and funding at European level.
The current research community is sparse and scattered, and a new emphasis is needed for training marine archaeologists in Continental Shelf Prehistoric Research, while promoting collaboration with engineers, climate change experts and numerical modellers. Many initial findings are made by industrial operations, whose role has the potential to be strengthened by improving collaboration with national cultural heritage agencies and academics, both to encourage the reporting of findings and to map, protect, and where appropriate, excavate the archaeological materials such as hut foundations, hearths, food remains, skeletons, shaped flint tools, hand axes, and paddles for canoes embedded in the sediments on the sea floor.
The EMB Working Group, comprising of experts from 11 European nations and chaired by Dr. Nicholas Flemming from the UK National Oceanography Centre, presented their recommendations after discussions taking place over a 12-month period. The new position paper gives a comprehensive overview of recent progress in the study of our submerged cultural heritage and sets of key research questions and policy priorities that are essential to support this research in the future. It is an invaluable resource for policy makers, research funders and scientists alike. Professor Jan Mees, Chair of the European Marine Board, explains its importance: “Our submerged cultural heritage is not a renewable resource; it is a unique irreplaceable cultural asset which can provide answers to many research questions about our prehistoric ancestors, landscapes and climate.”
Contributing Source: European Science Foundation
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