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The Race To Dredge Up Europe's Ancient Sunken Artifacts

Quit your job and become the next hybrid of Jacques Cousteau and Indiana Jones.

by Ben Richmond
Oct 8 2014, 8:32pm

Image: Wikimedia Commons

All the coolest jobs are disappearing, being swallowed up by robots, or paying basically nothing, but there's at least one new field that almost literally blows all the old ones out of the water: Continental Shelf Prehistoric Research.

Since that's not the most descriptive title, know that this newish field combines, "the expertise from many disciplines including archaeology, oceanography and the geosciences," in order to study the remains of prehistoric settlements in the coastal waters of Europe.

Basically, you'd be a combination of Jacques Cousteau and Indiana Jones required to spend all your time on the Mediterranean—or, I suppose, potentially other, colder places, but still, coastal Europe for work. Damn.

Image: D.Sakellariou/ HCMR

The description of what I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to do comes from a paper released yesterday by the European Marine Board called "The Land Beneath the Waves: Submerged Landscapes and Sea-Level Change."

The study describes how the changing climate during the ice ages of the last million years caused the sea level to vary, sometimes dropping by as much as 120 meters. It's the opposite of what's happening to the climate right now: back then, the cooler global climate exposed land, by trapping more water in ice.

This exposed a larger portion of the continental shelf that became dry land and part of the prehistoric European continent, which was 40 percent larger than it is today—before the climate warmed again, the seas rose, and covered it up. 

Image: NASA World Wind/Sea Level 

Now, "beneath the waves," lies a significant portion of a significant period in human history. "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 drowned land includes some of the earliest routes from Africa into Europe, and the areas where people survived during the multiple Ice Ages," the paper's press release states.

Far from being theoretical, the release says more than "2,500 submerged prehistoric artifact assemblages, ranging in age from 5,000 to 300,000 years, have been found in the coastal waters and open sea basins around Europe." These underwater sites also offer possibilities for discoveries, not found elsewhere. According to the study, "objects made of organic material like wooden fish weirs or tools made from antler, wood or bone are prominent in the [underwater] inventory, whereas such materials are rarely found on land-based sites."

Early Bronze Age submerged town of Pavlopetri, southern Greece. Image: J. Henderson

But damned if that history isn't getting any younger, or easier to find. "Climate changes affect chemical, physical, geological and biological conditions from the substrate to the waters covering the continental shelf," the study states. "Offshore economic activities such as fisheries, oil and gas extraction, construction of windfarms and energy pipelines, will continue to expand into new areas. Offshore dredging leads to large scale destruction and relocation of sediments of the active zone and changes the local systems of currents and sediment transport."

Fortunately technology is advancing quickly, but maybe not quickly enough. Acoustic seafloor mapping, magnetic resonance, LiDAR, robots both controlled remotely and semiautonomous, have been applied effectively to prehistoric studies, even if the tech itself was developed for other purposes like mine detection or searching for shipwrecks. Science diving is even a thing—and it's a very cool thing.

There's plenty of room for us all in the Euro-aqua-archeology game, because one of the challenges the field faces is that "there is a shortage of trained personnel in this field." There's, like in all sciences, a shortage of funding as well, and this research is really expensive. But I'm sure we can figure the money part out later.

Look, far from being a flash in the pan, this field is only going to grow. Considering that the last massive climate change that brought it into existence was the global climate warming, your children and grand children may have an opportunity to become continental shelf researchers of the sunken city of Boston. Is that actually a huge bummer? Almost definitely, but consider this a silver lining.

Jacques Cousteau
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