Discover a new world: Landscape Beneath the Waves

Why does underwater archaeology matter? Is it relevant to non-specialists, other archaeologists, and even to the interested public? CAROLINE WICKHAM-JONES tells us why landscapes beneath the waves can be important to us all.


You are an archaeologist. You work on the sites and assemblages to be found in our towns and villages, cities, countryside, and hills. You studied at one of the many excellent academic institutions to be found across Britain, or you acquired your knowledge and understanding through years of hard slog in the field. Or both. While archaeology is an expanding field as new techniques and information are constantly being developed, one thing you do not have to worry about is acquiring an understanding of underwater archaeology. The seabed is a specialist field that does not concern you. Right?

Wrong.

You are interested in the past. You like to read books on archaeology and history and watch TV documentaries. You may have helped out on a local dig, museum project, or interpretive event. But underwater archaeology, that is something else – something best left to the specialists.

Think again.

It is true to say that the investigation of the submerged landscapes is a new field. But, just as with the advent of radiocarbon dating, it is a field with which we all need to become familiar. Now, I would not recognise an Accelerator Mass Spectrometry machine if they had them on special offer in the central isles at Lidl. But I do know that I need to understand what they do because I make use of their results every day in my life as an archaeologist. It is the same with the archaeology of the seabed. I’m not a diver, I’m not a competent boat operator, I don’t know how to undertake sonar survey, and I’ve not been trained in reading a seismic profile. But I do know that I need to take the underwater landscape into account, and I know people who have the specialist knowledge to help me out.

At high tide these ancient stumps lie beneath some 12m of water, on the shores of the Minas Basin in Nova Scotia.

The thing is that the world has changed. We are only too aware of the possibilities of future sea-level rise, but we have been slow to realise that it has happened in the past. The position of the coast today is not necessarily that of the coast in previous centuries and millennia. While this is of particular relevance for those of us who work in prehistory, it is also essential information for those who study more recent periods.

Only by understanding the position of the coast at specific periods of time can we be sure that we truly understand the particular context of our sites. It is no good surveying present day beaches for lithic materials if the coast in prehistory was 20m lower than it is today. It is not accurate to analyse a map of Mesolithic site locations if a kilometre or more of the land has since been submerged. What use is it to consider local resources if we do not take into account the original lie of the land? We may not always have the tools to survey the submerged landscape in detail, but we have, at least, to know that it was there.

There are plenty of books and papers on the subject, there is no shortage of material from which to learn. But all assume some prior knowledge; tackling the information gap can, thus, be a daunting prospect. For this reason, I wanted to write something that would introduce people to the topic. It is what I enjoy doing: trying to enthuse people about the things I find interesting. Reading Landscape Beneath the Waves is not going to turn you into an underwater archaeologist overnight. But it should, hopefully, help you to understand the processes behind past sea-level rise, familiarize you with the ways in which we research it, and enthuse you about the amazing projects that are going on around the world.

My own research is based in the UK and many of my examples (both processes and projects) are drawn from UK waters. Doggerland is now a reasonably familiar term and the ongoing research into the landscape and population of Doggerland receives good publicity. But the idea was to make the book relevant to people wherever they live and work. Furthermore, only by drawing on material from a wider base was it possible to put the UK research into context.

In this way Doggerland can be compared to Beringia and Sundaland; Bouldnor Cliff with Mossel Bay and GNL Quintero 1. You will come across submerged temples and villages in India and Israel, caribou hunting traps in the USA, Mesolithic settlements in Denmark and Aboriginal landscapes in Australia. There is a whole new world to be explored out there. And, once you are familiar with it, you will, hopefully, start to question what might be lying closer to home. You will be able to ask the questions that help to put your own sites and interests into a more complete context. More to the point, you will be able to understand the answers! You might even want to read more.


Caroline Wickham-Jones is an archaeologist living in Orkney. She is affiliated as an Honorary Research Assistant to the University of Aberdeen. She is part of a multi-institutional, multidisciplinary team investigating the submerged landscape of Orkney and has many years of experience of popular writing and communication. She has drawn on her research experience to write an accessible introduction to the new field of submerged landscape studies.

Now Available:

Landscape Beneath the Waves: The Archaeological Investigation of Underwater Landscapes
By Caroline Wickham-Jones

A comprehensive introduction to the effects of sea-level change on prehistoric landscapes and the techniques and methods of interpretation applicable to the study of submerged archaeology illustrated by case studies.

Oxbow Books | 9781789250725 | Paperback | £29.95
£22.50 until November 30th

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