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Feature - Grid makes a SPLASH in underwater archaeology

Feature - Grid makes a SPLASH in underwater archaeology

Up to 3.2 million square kilometers of the European continental shelf (about 40 per cent of Europe's land mass) was exposed as dry land during the periods of lower sea level that persisted throughout the Ice Ages. These now-submerged coastal regions probably played a key role in the survival and dispersal of Europe's earliest Stone Age inhabitants, the extinction of the last Neanderthals, their replacement by modern humans originating from Africa, and the initial dispersal of agriculture from the Near East. (Insets show local river patterns on the shelf.) Image courtesy Nic Flemming/SPLASH

Submerged beneath the waves lies a large part of human history.

For our ancestors, the ancient coastlines were attractive places to settle and experiment with what became the foundations of civilization. As the major glaciers melted between sixteen and six thousand years ago, these sites - where people first began to make fishing equipment, build boats and create permanent settlements - became engulfed by the rising seas.

But rather than destroying these ancient landscapes, the rising sea level instead preserved many of them, and with them many details in the story of our past.

"We have a lot to learn by looking under-water. There are many sites to discover and examine, and preservation is in fact often better than on land," says Geoff Bailey, at the Department of Archaeology, University of York, UK. "There are large gaps in our general knowledge of early history."

Working in places as distant as the Southern Red Sea, the shores near Gibraltar and off of the coast of England, Bailey and his colleagues look for sites containing well-preserved ancient remains that are rare in inland sites: wood, woven fibers, beetles and other insects, plant material, pottery - sometimes with the remains of food inside - bones (human, mammoth and other) and organic material with DNA traces.

To aid in the collection and sharing of this information, Bailey and colleagues have started a new European research network, SPLASH, standing for "Submerged Prehistoric Landscapes and Archaeology of the continental Shelf." The project - whose first phase of work will last four years - was recently awarded funding by the European Union under the Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) Action framework.

"Over the past 20-30 years enormous amounts of submarine data have been gathered on the seas," says Nic Flemming, project member and research fellow at the National Oceanographic Center in Southampton, England. "No one has peviously thought of systematically using this data for archaeology, but in fact we can use it to reconstruct past - once dry - landscapes. What we need is a system to tap in to these archives all over Europe."

Researchers have found some unexpected things from the past beneath the waves, including this wooly mammoth head. Image courtesy Dick Mol and Nic Flemming/SPLASH

First steps first

The project's first task, or 'work package,' will be to weave together large sets of seabed physical and geochemical data collected and archived by national governments, academic and commercial researchers; and to construct a frontend through which researchers can access, browse and manipulate this data.

"I suddenly realized the potential importance of this work when, sitting in the National Oceanographic Center in Southampton with Nic," says Bob Jones, Director of the grid computing project Enabling Grids for E-sciencE, "he pointed outside the window to the site of a prehistoric village lying under 12 meters of water."

"This work is very exciting and I'm confident that the data management and access facilities of e-Infrastructures like EGEE can help SPLASH."

-Danielle Venton, EGEE. To learn more, visit the University of York Web site

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