Flinders maritime archaeologist Associate Professor Jonathan Benjamin led an international team who confirmed what scientists and Aboriginal communities had long believed: that ancient people historically occupied a far greater Australia than exists today. This is evidenced by underwater archaeological sites on the continental shelf where hundreds of artefacts were found settled on the seabed at two sites in Murujuga (Dampier Archipelago), which is renowned for its ancient rock engravings.
It represents an important first step towards unlocking the secrets of ancient coastal habitation. This is especially important, as 21% of Australia’s original land mass is now under water – an area larger than the state of Queensland. These submerged landscapes represent what is known as Sea Country by many Indigenous Australians, and Associate Professor Benjamin acknowledges the importance of working in collaboration with Indigenous communities.
The research published in scientific journal PLOS One, by The Deep History of Sea Country project team, confirms that archaeology can survive under water. Many Aboriginal Australians have oral traditions of the sea encroaching on ancient communities. “With a respectful approach and time to establish a trust, we have operated a two-way knowledge exchange between the archaeologists and the local communities,” says Associate Professor Benjamin, who was the lead investigator of the DHSC Project. “We draw on and value local expertise. Providing the tangible links to Sea Country can help empower those communities in terms of land and sea rights.”
The idea behind this major underwater archaeological discovery has burned within Californian-born Associate Professor Benjamin since he was a student. He was fascinated by the dramatic image of a diver emerging from the sea, holding an ancient antler. It featured on the cover of Danish research published by Anders Fischer, Man and Sea in the Mesolithic, and it inspired him to further investigate what the pioneer underwater archaeologists found in their own local areas. Associate Professor Benjamin realised the phenomenon of sea-level rise is global, so submerged archaeological evidence should be found in coastal and nearshore environments worldwide. This has major ramifications for studying human history and world archaeology.
There are only a few places in the world that have a well-known tradition for studying coastal prehistory below the current sea level, including Denmark, Israel and Florida. However, Associate Professor Benjamin’s PhD studies focused on the Adriatic Sea, and his subsequent work focused on the submerged prehistory of Europe, while based in Scotland.
In 2014, Associate Professor Benjamin came to Australia with an ambition to make a mark on maritime archaeology. “An enormous amount of the world’s earliest human history took place on land that is now under water,” Benjamin says. “It’s especially important to be studying this in Australia.”