In 2002, Geoff Bailey and colleagues began three projects to develop new methods and acquire new information about the nature of early coastlines and human use of coastal and marine resources, the ARHB-funded project on Coastal Shell Middens and Agricultural Origins in Atlantic Europe (2002 to 2006), the Heritage Lottery funded Howick Project (2001 to 2003) and the NERC-funded Africa-Arabia Connections project (2003-2006). These led on to three further projects, which together formed a closely linked series of investigations designed to carry forward the next stage of research, Submerged Prehistoric Landscape Archaeology, Underwater Cave Excavation in Gibraltar, and the Southern Red Sea Project: Farasan Islands. These in their turn have created the foundation for two current projects: SPLASHCOS: Submerged Prehistoric Archaeology and Landscapes of the Continental Shelf; and DISPERSE: Dynamic Landscapes, Coastal Environments and Hominin Dispersals. All of these projects address in different ways the investigation of prehistoric coastlines and coastal settlement though excavation of coastal archaeological sites, investment in new methods of palaeodietary analysis, and with increasing emphasis the exploration of the now submerged landscapes that were drowned by sea level rise at the end of the last glacial period.
In recent millennia, coastal environments have often supported large and populous settlements, and this applies at all levels of human society from hunters and gatherers to urban societies. Greater diversity and richness of food resources, including fish, molluscs and sea mammals, abundant water supplies and higher levels of fertility for plants and animals on land, more equable climatic conditions, and improved opportunities for population dispersal, transportation and seaborne trade and migration, all contribute to the attractions of coastal areas. Persuasive arguments have been advanced to suggest that coastlines have played a significant role throughout human history from our earliest origins and dispersal as a species over 2 million years ago through to the growth of permanent settlements, the dispersal of agriculture and the development of complex societies.
However, we know very little of the earlier stages in this process of development and have good reason to suppose that most of the relevant evidence has been eroded away or is now submerged. For most of human history on this planet, sea levels have been substantially lower than the present in response to the expansion of the continental ice sheets. At the maximum of the last glacial period about 20,000 years ago, sea level was 130 m below the present. After 16,000 years ago it rose rapidly to reach the modern level at about 6000 years ago. For most of the period back to 125,000 years ago (the previous period of interglacial climates and high sea levels), sea level fluctuated between 40 and 60 m below the present. A similar pattern of persistently low sea levels, lasting for up to 100,000 years, interrupted by short-lived periods of high sea level rarely lasting more than about 10,000 years, can be traced back over at least the past 1 million years.
This large variation in sea level must have had a huge impact on human palaeogeography. It exposed extensive areas of the continental shelf for human settlement, offering potentially more attractive and diverse coastal resources and terrestrial environments than the adjacent hinterlands, and linked together areas of land and even continents that today are separated by sea channels. Yet, archaeological evidence for the use of coastal areas and marine resources is largely confined to short-lived periods of high sea level, and most of it to the period after about 6000 years ago, which is when sea level stopped rising after the melting of the continental ice sheets at the end of the last glacial. It is likely that we are missing most of the evidence for earlier coastal settlement, and arguably some of the most important evidence for the earlier periods of human development, resulting in a severely distorted view of world prehistory and a belief, most probably erroneous, that marine resources were largely ignored until a very recent stage of human development.
Significant advances have been made in the exploration of this underwater realm over the past 20 years in shallow water and in reference to quite recent archaeological sites, particularly underwater Mesolithic sites in Denmark. But the prevailing archaeological opinion has been that we would learn little from exploration of more deeply submerged coastlines that we could not discover more cheaply and with less risk of failure on dry land. The costs and logistical difficulties of underwater investigation continue to pose a significant deterrent to such research, and reinforce the belief that the outcome of such investigations is too uncertain and too speculative to be worth the risk.
Nevertheless, a growing number of underwater archaeological finds, the development of new technologies of underwater investigation, and the realisation that a valuable archive of archaeological, palaeoenvironmental and palaeoclimatic evidence is being destroyed by erosion and commercial exploitation of the seabed are slowly changing attitudes. Projects such as those described here are designed to produce new information and experience that will help to build the case for wider archaeological and palaoenvironmental investigation of the continental shelf
The Archaeology Department at York has a strong background in Shell Midden Research. The Shell Midden Research Group is composed of a dynamic mix of both established and early stage researchers who are actively involved in cutting edge research in this field. Research interests in the group are diverse and include: osteology, isotopic, pot residue, landscape, seasonality, AAR dating, fish bones, archaeomalacology, zoolarchaeology (including ZooMS), burial and geoarchaeology.
This is an active research group who meet regularly to discuss issues arising from our research. Current members include (but is not limited to):Nicky Milner Geoff Bailey Oliver Craig Matthew Collins Kirsty Penkman Eva Laurie
- Abdarrazzack Al Ma'amary, (Sana'a University, Republic of Yemen)
- Nabiel Al Shaikh, (Dammam Museum, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)
- Abdullah Al-Sharekh, (King Saud University, Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)
- Jose Carrion, (University of Murcia)
- Darren Fa, (Gibraltar Museum)
- Clive Finlayson, (Gibraltar Museum)
- Geraldine Finlayson, (Gibraltar Museum)
- Nic Flemming (National Oceanography Centre, Southampton)
- Geoffrey King (Institut de Physique du Globe, Paris)
- Kurt Lambeck Research School of Earth Sciences, ANU)
- Garry Momber, Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology
- Joaquin Rodriguez Vidal, (University of Huelva)
- Dimitris Sakellariou, (Hellenic Centre for Marine Research)
- Anthony Sinclair (University of Liverpool)
- Claudio Vita-Finzi (Natural History Museum, London)