A ground-breaking project led by Flinders University’s Dr Jonathan Benjamin is exploring unique submerged prehistoric midden site in the world in order to learn how climate and culture can be related to the Australian experience.
A Senior Lecturer in Maritime Archaeology at Flinders, Dr Benjamin is leading a team that secured a $597,000 Australian Research Council (ARC) grant to investigate the records of the now-submerged Pilbara coast and the transgressed shell midden on the Danish island of Hjarnø.
“It is an incredibly exciting prospect to begin to study the maritime archaeology of pre-European indigenous Australia and reshapes maritime archaeology in this country, which has been historically focused on European contact, historical migrations and modern material culture. But maritime archaeology is much more than that,” Dr Benjamin says.
Braving the cold waters of the Scandinavian coastline and the warmer seas of Western Australia, researchers are forensically investigating archaeological and palaeoenvironmental remnants across the Northern and Southern hemispheres to provide insights into the past.
Dr Benjamin stated that, “This is the first systematic underwater archaeological project to evaluate Australia’s continental shelf for late Pleistocene and early Holocene archaeological deposits some 50,000 to 7,000 years ago when nearly one-third of Australia’s land mass was drowned after the last Ice Age, and sea-level change displaced generations of people.”
Submerged landscape archaeology is an under-researched field in Australia and represents a major opportunity to address knowledge gaps in world prehistory such as early human migrations, the archaeology of land bridges and coastal-hinterland cultural exchange.
Driving the project from its inception Geoarchaeologist Dr. Ingrid Ward has been delighted by artefacts uncovered on her snorkelling expeditions in Denmark, “The wealth of flint, wood and bone artefacts associated with this submerged shell midden is incredible, and even more amazing to learn that it is likely one of several midden sites in the region. However, the very fact this particular site is eroding highlights the importance of understanding and managing these unique archaeological sites before they are lost forever.”
The DHSC team has been exploring the culturally rich submerged landscapes of Denmark using sidescan sonar for identifying underwater sediments and geology, collecting core samples for more detailed sediment assessment. Donning a ‘dry suit’ and often battling strong currents, senior member of the project leadership team, Professor Geoff Bailey of the University of York (UK), recently explored the Danish midden located in an intertidal zone between the island and the mainland.
The project employs the talents of geomorphologists and geoarchaeologists to coastal prehistorians and current PhD Candidates.
In October 2017, Prof. Jorg Hacker (Flinders University and Airborne Research Australia) will add a component to the project that has never before been used in Australia by flying a small (manned) research aircraft carrying a topographic and a bathymetric airborne Lidar plus high resolution cameras to map relevant features on dry land and also in the shallow waters of the Pilbara coast.
As today’s seas continue to rise projects like the Deep History of Sea Country are vital to understanding the past and how humans have adapted to climate change. These insights potentially provide a context for developing innovative strategies to understand how the future of climate change may unfold.
Follow this fascinating project on the team’s blog.
As co-chair of the UNESCO UNITWIN Network for Underwater Archaeology, Dr Benjamin is a specialist in underwater archaeology and the archaeology of submerged prehistoric landscapes.
He has conducted archaeological research in Britain, Slovenia, Croatia, Cyprus, Israel, Denmark and Australia and is an expert in diver-based photographic and photogrammetric recording of underwater archaeological sites.
The new ARC project is being conducted in collaboration with researchers at Aarhus University, Denmark; Airborne Research Australia – Non-Profit-Research Institute; Curtin University of Technology; James Cook University; The University of Western Australia; and University of York, England.