Current events! Submerged cultural material tested in the UWA Oceans Institute flume

UWA-based researcher and DHSC CI Dr Mick O’Leary has been busy testing our hypothesis that the stone tools located on the seabed of Murujuga Sea Country remain relatively stable over time, despite strong tidal currents in the archipelago.

Observations by DHSC scientific divers led to our appraisal of stability on the seabed. A series of artefacts were tested at various orientations under different current velocities to see if they would remain in situ or would be subject to transportation under high velocity current flow.

Stay tuned for more scientific data and analysis in the coming months while we prepare this exciting information for publication!

Back in the field: DHSC 2022

The Deep History of Sea Country Project Team was once again back in the field for June 2022, with familiar faces and new postgraduate student team members undertaking scientific diving on Murujuga Sea Country. This year diving from the new Flinders Maritime Archaeology Research Vessel (RV) Bungaree.

Stay tuned for more project team member blogs, and some exciting new material in forthcoming publications later this year (and a fun surprise we can’t yet disclose coming in early 2023).

Australia’s coastal waters are rich in Indigenous cultural heritage, but it remains hidden and under threat

Jonathan Benjamin, Flinders University; Chelsea Wiseman, Flinders University; John McCarthy, Flinders University; Peter Jeffries, Indigenous Knowledge, and Sean Ulm, James Cook University

When people arrived in Australia more than 65,000 years ago, they landed on shores that are now deep under water. The first footprints on this continent took place on these now-submerged landscapes.

More than 2 million square kilometres of Australia’s continental landmass — an area larger than Queensland — was drowned by sea-level rise over the last 20,000 years. This land was once home to thousands of generations of Indigenous peoples.


Read more: Australia’s coastal living is at risk from sea level rise, but it’s happened before


Despite the scale of this vast drowned cultural landscape, Australia has fallen behind international best practice in locating, recording and protecting submerged Indigenous cultural places.

This is what Australia looked like for most of human history, complete with massive lakes in what is now the Gulf of Carpentaria and Bass Strait (Image: S. Ulm)

Last year, our team reported the discovery of nearly 300 stone artefacts submerged on the continental shelf off northwestern Australia.

This discovery demonstrated that submerged Indigenous sites are likely to exist around the continent, but remain unknown due to a lack of investigation.


Read more: In a first discovery of its kind, researchers have uncovered an ancient Aboriginal archaeological site preserved on the seabed


The big picture and the local scale

In two new studies published in Australian Archaeology, we outline approaches to help us better understand and manage Indigenous underwater cultural heritage.

Through a two-pronged approach at both the local and regional level, we review big data to predict the location of sites. We also put boots on the ground and divers in the water to find and record them.

At the local level, our research at Murujuga in northwest Australia indicates we must combine archaeological data from above and below the water to understand the past landscape at periods of lower sea level.

Drawing on evidence from across terrestrial, coastal and submerged environments, we found archaeological material in all three zones.

The interface between land and sea. The intertidal zone of today used to be dry land (Photo: S. Wright)

Our study also aligns archaeological practice with histories of Indigenous Australians, who describe cultural landscapes extending into Sea Country. Some oral histories describe past sea-level rise and drowned cultural landscapes.

Archaeologists investigate a drowned cultural landscape at low tide to reveal stone artefacts (Photo: S. Wright)

At the regional scale, our study shows how research into submerged landscapes can be expanded across Australia. Taking the Northern Territory as a case study, we assessed the potential for archaeological material to be preserved on the seabed.

National environmental frameworks, such as Marine bioregional plans for Australia’s seabed focus largely on marine biodiversity and habitats, only acknowledging archaeology through a selection of historic shipwrecks.

With few regional or state-level mechanisms in place to inform marine management planning, Indigenous underwater cultural heritage has been ignored or marginalised. There is now an opportunity and an ethical obligation to integrate Indigenous perspectives and traditional knowledge into marine science research.

Divers discovered an ancient archaeological site that included stone tools used for grinding (Photo: S. Wright)

Threats to underwater Indigenous heritage

Indigenous underwater cultural heritage is threatened by a variety of activities, including dredging, offshore cables and pipelines, seabed mining, and oil and gas exploration.

Such developments can cause significant damage and even explosions and fires in the sea, as witnessed recently in the Gulf of Mexico.

We can expect increased pressure on coastal and submerged sites with the increasing impacts of climate change. Without mechanisms to consider the archaeology in the intertidal zone of Australia (the transitional area between land and sea) and the seabed, such disturbances will occur out of sight and out of mind.

This stone cutting tool with a serrated edge was found in the intertidal zone (Photo: J. Benjamin)

Some state and local laws protect underwater cultural heritage, but these vary across the country. The national Underwater Cultural Heritage Act also does not adequately protect Indigenous cultural heritage.

The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage protects all heritage greater than 100 years old, including both colonial-era sites and Indigenous underwater cultural heritage. But Australia’s national policy currently does not align with the convention.

Our systems must change

Archaeologists working in partnership with Indigenous communities must take a central role in scientific research, management of marine environments and industry-led campaigns, incorporating archaeology into environmental impact assessments.

Industry has begun to respond. One company, Woodside Energy, for example, has acknowledged the importance of this issue, and has engaged with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation. The company says it has sought to understand the potential heritage values of the submerged cultural landscape for the proposed Scarborough pipeline.

Industry has begun to acknowledge the significance of Sea Country and the industrial impacts on drowned Indigenous cultural heritage (Photo: S. Wright)

This is a new paradigm for the offshore sector in Australia and a sign of things to come as industry and policy-makers respond to scientific advances and new knowledge.

Coastal peoples all over the world have made a significant contribution to human history. Only through underwater archaeology can we fully understand these past peoples who called coastal environments their home.

Scientific divers investigate the underwater world, revealing a drowned cultural landscape (S. Wright)

Jonathan Benjamin, Associate Professor in Maritime Archaeology, Flinders University and ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Chelsea Wiseman, PhD Candidate, Flinders University; John McCarthy, ARC DECRA Fellow, Flinders University; Peter Jeffries, CEO of Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, Indigenous Knowledge, and Sean Ulm, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ancient undersea middens offer clues about life before rising seas engulfed the coast. Now we have a better way to study them.

Divers excavate a shallow water submerged Mesolithic midden off the island of Hjarnø, Denmark. J. Benjamin., Author provided

by Katherine Woo, James Cook University; Geoff Bailey, University of York; Jessica Cook Hale, University of Georgia; Jonathan Benjamin, Flinders University, Sean Ulm, James Cook University and Peter Moe Astrup, Curator of Maritime Archaeology at Moesgaard Museum.

The world’s oceans hold their secrets close, including clues about how people lived tens of thousands of years ago.

For a large portion of humanity’s existence, sea levels were significantly lower (up to 130 metres) than they are today, exposing millions of square kilometres of land. And the archaeological record is clear: people in the past lived on these coastal plains before the land slipped beneath the waves.

Archaeology already tells us these drowned landscapes played significant roles in human history. Major events such as human migrations across the globe and the invention of maritime technology took place along these now-drowned shorelines.

But these sites can be hard to find.

In two papers published this week our team reports on a breakthrough in detecting and excavating one particular type of coastal archaeological site — shell middens — on what is now the seabed.

The rich trove of evidence in these middens offer clues on how people adapted during times of sea-level rise and climate change.

It was long thought shell middens would be unlikely to survive the effects of rising sea levels – or if they had, it would be impossible to distinguish them from natural debris on the ocean floor. Our new findings suggest that’s not necessarily the case.

Underwater archaeologist excavating a shell midden
Scuba diver excavating shell midden. Author supplied.

Read more: In a first discovery of its kind, researchers have uncovered an ancient Aboriginal archaeological site preserved on the seabed


A new way to detect and excavate underwater middens

In recent decades, archaeologist have systematically searched the globe for evidence of these submerged cultural landscapes.

However, rough currents and poor visibility can make it difficult to find and record underwater sites.

Danish field crew take cores of the sea floor to determine whether middens are present.

In two journal articles published this week, our team has announced new ways of detecting and excavating shell middens from what is now the seabed.

Previously, shell middens were hard to differentiate from natural shell deposits.

But our examination of three shell middens between 7,300 and 4,500 years old – from the Gulf of Mexico, the United States and Eastern Jutland in Denmark – demonstrate how submerged middens not only survive, but retain a distinct “signature” which can be used to separate them from naturally accumulated debris on the sea floor.

By using microscopy, geological and geophysical techniques, 3D reconstructions, and biological and ecological studies, we teased out different strands of evidence that offer new insights into how we might find other midden sites in watery depths around the globe.

Box core
We teased out different strands of evidence that offer new insights into how we might find and excavate other midden sites in watery depths around the globe. Author supplied.

Challenging what we thought we knew about ancient coastal communities

What we’ve found so far challenges current ideas about coastal use in the Gulf of Mexico and northern Europe.

In the Gulf of Mexico, there is a gap in midden sites from between 5,000 and 4,500 years ago along the coastline of our study area. New results suggest localised sea-level changes, not lack of occupation, explain that gap.

In Denmark, the discovery of these middens (which are rare in the south) hints this type of site was more common than previously thought. That shifts our understandings of how intensive coastal use may have been between 7,300 and 5,000 years ago.

Importantly, both studies imply our histories of past coastal use may need to be rewritten as more such sites are found. Previously, many archaeologists assumed that people only occupied stable coastal zones. However, in both of our study areas, this was not the case.

Furthermore, older examples of similar middens likely lie offshore in multiple regions. Our new methods can make the search for such sites easier and more efficient.

Clues about adapting to a changing environment

Research at these sites is generating critical information that is beginning to fill in missing pieces of the puzzle of the human past.

Shell middens are complex, culturally significant sites. Some are the result of people discarding food refuse, tools, and other remnants of daily life. In other cases middens are purposefully built for cultural reasons, including burials. Often they are a mix of both.

In undersea shell middens we can find discarded tools and ornaments, old living surfaces, and in some cultures, human burials.

They thus provide fundamental information about past food choices, tool technology, trade practices, and cultural values. These different types of information allow us to infer how people adapted their cultures over time. They also hint at how people interacted with their surrounding environments even as sea levels rose and the climate changed.

Understanding the past can help us contend with the future

These findings are not just important for our understandings of the past. They have direct and significant impacts on modern people, especially the rights of Indigenous and First Nations people across the globe.

These Nations have long impressed on us their deep connections with marine environments and seascapes. However, recognition of these relationships in western environmental and heritage conservation policies has been slow and deeply inadequate.

These new findings support Indigenous and First Nations people to manage the cultural heritage of their ancestral lands and waters by documenting these relationships into the deep past.

The discovery of these underwater sites, and the promise of more to be found, means industry, developers, archaeologists, and government bodies must reassess how we manage and protect ancient Indigenous heritage in these underwater settings. That is especially true as offshore mining and development accelerates.



Katherine Woo, Postdoctoral Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University; Geoff Bailey, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology, University of York; Jessica Cook Hale, Visiting Scholar, University of Georgia; Jonathan Benjamin, Associate Professor in Maritime Archaeology, Flinders University and ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University, and Sean Ulm, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.