Tow-fishing for submerged cultural landscapes in the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga), Western Australia

Last year our survey team took to the sea aboard the small work boat DAN K (operated by Aust Marine out of Dampier, WA). The team consisted of DHSC staff and research students, based in Adelaide, Perth and overseas. The purpose of the surveys were to complement the data we gathered through bathymetric lidar with sidescan sonar data and identify priority areas for diver survey. The team continued to update the local community Members via the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), who have been involved and updated of our on-going project since the onset.


Sidescan sonar survey allows us to record significant areas of the seabed and view the submarine environment through high-resolution acoustic images. This is important to locate areas of the Dampier Archipelago where submerged cultural material is likely to have preserved so we could characterise the seabed and see what the bottom is made of and what is sitting on the seabed. This will help our divers to select locations to survey later in the project.

Working at sea

Sidescan data collection can be slow going, and is not without its complexities. We need good sea conditions, good weather and the right wind, and good operators. All of the data has to be logged, organised and eventually processed. We had a few false starts early in the year, with technical issues, power problems, and of course bad weather. It took three tries to get it right. But then it all came together.

DSC07554.jpgOur third attempt was the winner. We had 9 consecutive days of calm, beautiful weather last September/October. In that amount of time we could map as many places as we could possibly get to, working 12 hour days at sea, running survey lines back and forth in neat polygons. Hats off to the full time professional marine surveyors who do this for their living year round. They have a seriously challenging job!


We were lucky to have a couple of project team members with such experience and capacity. Francis Stankiewicz, who has previously posted about the Danish component of the project, and Dr Paul Baggaley (Adjunct Lecturer in Maritime Archaeology at Flinders University, and CTO of Wessex Archaeology in the UK). Thanks to a real combined team effort, a bit of luck with the weather, and our hard working crew, we got the data we needed at the survey sites we wanted.


We have now processed the geophysical data and selected target areas for further investigation. The integration of several remote sensing datasets helps to refine our survey strategy, and better understand the submerged environment of the Dampier Archipelago.

DHSC Student Participants: Emma Beckett & Patrick Morrison

DHSC Student Participants: Emma Beckett and Patrick Morrison

Emma Beckett is a PhD student from the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management (CRAR+M) at the University of Western Australia. Her dissertation has been part of the Murujuga: Dynamics of the Dreaming Project directed DHSC CI, Professor Jo McDonald at the University of Western Australia. Emma has also been a student participant in the DHSC project, conducting coastal surveys and flying several drone missions.


In her own words: My research focuses on providing a better understanding of the nature and placement of stone arrangements across the Archipelago. These arrangements come in a wide range of forms adding to an already impressive archaeological landscape and include: standing stones, elongated stones placed upright like spines across the boulder slopes; depressions formed in the rocky hills with stones placed around a central pit and stacks of stones in piles, circles and lines.  These stacks are found in a range of environmental contexts across level platforms, hillslopes and within the intertidal zone. These structures represent a range of human activities including the construction of shelter for domestic use and hunting hides, to more easily catch game, establishment of markers likely used for signalling between and within groups as well as the creation of stone arrangements as part of spiritual or religious activities or rituals.

I was delighted to be involved on the most recent Deep History of Sea Country (DHSC) fieldwork in May 2019. I was involved with the recording of coastal terrestrial archaeology so that the team might be better able to understand how this can be identified underwater.

As a GIS specialist, I was heavily involved in the collection and management of the spatial data for this part of the project. I collected aerial imagery from a number of sites using my drone. This processed imagery can be used for the creation of high resolution ortho-imagery and 3D landscape reconstruction.

Emma_Drone.pngDrone Image of Enderby Island with DHSC Boat  

Being involved in the DHSC fieldwork was really helpful for my own research. I was able to visit and record a number of structures within intertidal areas that I had not been able to access previously. And working with the DHSC team help me gain more experience in understanding coastal landscapes as the various CI’s generously provided expertise, support and resources. Having spent much of the last ten years working in inland arid landscapes, the knowledge shared during the course of this project was invaluable to me.

Emma_Fishtrap.pngSubmerged stone structure within intertidal zone 

 This has also been important for helping me further explore the ways in which structures might have played a role for humans as the landscape changed from an inland to a coastal environment. Echoes of the inundation which changed the environment over thousands of years can be imagined even while watching the sometimes dramatic tidal range exhibited in these areas today. Watching the tide swallow up a gently sloping muddy beach in the course of a few hours one can’t help but imagine how people would have reacted as their hunting and foraging range slowly contracted, never to re-emerge.

Thanks to everyone involved in the fieldwork for such a great trip! I am looking forward to further collaboration with the DHSC team in the near future.

Patrick Morrison is midway through his honours project at UWA. He is writing on a stone artefact scatter, found in the intertidal zone of Dolphin Island in Murujuga (the Dampier Archipelago). This site possibly represents evidence for a submerged landscape, inundated by sea-level rise in the Early Holocene and we suspect that this is one of many similar sites in the Archipelago.

PM_EB.pngPatrick and Emma recording stone tools in the intertidal zone

In his own words:  I started formal archaeological training in 2016, after an interesting broadening unit added an Archaeology major to my Neuroscience degree. In that unit, we were introduced to the idea that a third of the Australian continent was inundated by rising seas since the Last Glacial Maximum (around 22 thousand years ago). The implication is profound as some of the most significant archaeological landscapes in Australia remain almost completely unexplored. This includes everything from the first landing sites, the coasts where people lived for the first 40,000 years of occupation, and the Country that remains an important part of many Aboriginal cultures today. When my supervisor Jo McDonald offered me the opportunity to study a potential submerged site, I was delighted.

My involvement with underwater archaeology began briefly before my first archaeology unit. Weekends of scuba diving and an interest in digital technologies came together, and lead to me to join the Maritime Archaeological Association of Western Australia (MAAWA), who were wrapping up an ambitious project using of 3D photogrammetry to record shipwrecks around Perth. I am now the Secretary of MAAWA, where we are running a project on the maritime cultural landscapes in the Swan and Canning Rivers, including everything from shipwrecks, to jetties, and even dumped cars.


Patrick diving on a shipwreck off Fremantle

I was lucky enough to start working on Murjuga in 2017 when I took part in a UWA RTIO rock art field school. More than a million Aboriginal rock engravings reveal a story of human adaptation to sea level rise over many millennia. It is one of the densest rock art provinces in the world, so once we had our eyes in after a few days of recording, we could all see art almost everywhere we looked. Over this last summer, I worked with Jo and the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre as an intern, visualising cultural features on Rosemary Island, one of the larger outer islands of the Archipelago. This gave me a chance to develop my skills in using airbourne LiDAR and drone datasets for archaeology.

Coastal Adaptation and Submerged Shell Middens

The DHSC Team is back in Denmark this month to undertake post-excavation work following the 2018 season of underwater excavation. Preliminary results from our team’s analysis is looking promising!

This follows on the recent #OpenAccess publication in the JICA which was published last month and which describes and discusses the 2017 DHSC Work. That article is freely available via:

Keep an eye on the DHSC project blog and our twitter feed for more updates!


The DHSC Project was recently represented at the NSF Workshop on the Submerged Paleolandscape Archeology of North America, held at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Washington DC. DHSC PI, Professor Geoff Bailey spoke about the importance of integrated approaches to submerged landscapes and the DHSC project’s current research efforts in Europe and Australia.

The DHSC team is delighted to see increased interest in this space internationally and especially glad to see inclusion of Indigenous representatives at the NSF workshop.

Professors James Dixon and Loren Davis organised the workshop highlighting the importance of submerged landscape archaeology to North American and World Archaeology.

Part 1. Global Significance and Progress in the European Union Geoffrey N. Bailey, Flinders University, AUS and the University of York, UK. International Significance of Submerged Landscape Archeology

Vincent Gaffney, University of Bradford, UK. Europe’s Lost Frontiers, the Chichley Conference and Report

Martin Segschneider, Archaeological State Office Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.
Submerged Prehistoric Archaeology and Landscapes of the Continental Shelf

Part 2. Submerged Landscapes Archaeology in a National Context

Loren G. Davis, Oregon State University, USA.
Significance of Submerged Landscape Archeology in North America

William Brown. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, US Department of the Interior. Overview: Federal Agency Regulatory
Responsibilities, Programs, Oversight re: Cultural and Paleontological Resources
on the US Continental Shelves

Douglas Harris, Narragansett Deputy Tribal Preservation Officer. Heritage and Cultural Values of submerged cultural resources.

Part 3. Modeling and Survey Methods: State of the Art

Kelly Monteleone, University of Calgary, Canada. Paleolandscape Modeling.

Jillian Maloney, San Diego State University, USA. Geophysical Survey: Site Survey, Detection, and Sampling

Part 4. Preliminary Working Groups

1) Rationale and significance of submerged paleolandscape archeology

2) Forging interagency, tribal, academic, and private partnerships

3) Defining needs, identifying funding, and logistic resources

4) Scientific, heritage, and resource management – a SPLASHCOS for America?

5) Cultural, field, and laboratory research protocols

6) Developing new methods and technology 

Underwater Shell Middens: Excavation and Remote Sensing of a Submerged Mesolithic site at Hjarnø, Denmark (Open Access Article)

New Open Access Article (Free to download)

Shell middens, or shell-matrix deposits, occur in large numbers across the coastlines of the world from the mid-Holocene (ca. 6000–5000 cal BC) onwards, often forming substantial mounds. However, they become smaller, rarer or absent as one goes back into earlier periods, suggesting a world-wide process of economic intensification. Since sea level was generally much lower during these earlier periods, a critical question is the extent to which mounded shell middens could have accumulated on now-submerged palaeoshorelines, and if so, how they were affected by the potentially destructive impact of sea-level rise. Further, and important to modern practice, it is essential that archaeologists consider how such sites can be discovered through underwater investigation. Here we offer a proof of concept that shell middens can survive submergence and can be detected, using systematic investigation of a rare example of a confirmed underwater shell midden at the Mesolithic site of Hjarnø (ca. 5300–4300 cal BC) in Denmark. We compare the excavation results with the results of geophysical survey, explore the problems of distinguishing underwater cultural shell middens from natural shell beds and conclude that shell middens can survive inundation by sea-level rise and can be detected by remote sensing, but require at least minimally invasive sampling to establish their cultural status. We suggest the methods developed may be applicable to coastal and marine sites impacted by postglacial sea-level rise worldwide.

Keywords: Mesolithic, Ertebølle, underwater archaeology, submerged landscapes, sidescan, sub-bottom profiling

From Australia to Scandinavia to the Middle East … and back again: DHSC PhD Candidate Chelsea Wiseman

As a PhD candidate on the DHSC project my research focuses on an international comparative study of submerged landscapes. I am starting with an existing knowledge of the submerged Neolithic sites off the Carmel Coast of Israel, an area I have studied for some time and on which I wrote my Honours thesis. Understanding how these sites were formed, transgressed by postglacial sea-level rise, and preserved – eventually to be found and recorded by archaeologists, will help me to complete my aim to compare these submerged sites with prospective areas in other areas around the world, including in the DHSC study area in NW Australia. In a similar way to the DHSC project’s ongoing work in Denmark, this allows us to move from a known example of submerged landscape archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean, learn from it, and extrapolate what I can to better understand the potential in Australia.


I began my PhD in early 2018 and while it has certainly been a steep learning curve, it has also been immensely rewarding. In April 2018, I attended the meeting of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Body for the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, held in Paris, France. I also took the minutes for the meeting of the UNESCO UNITWIN Network for Underwater Archaeology. Both meetings provided an ideal opportunity to learn more about the increasingly global community involved in underwater archaeology, and to be present for the discussions surrounding the implementation of the 2001 Convention. Amongst the subjects raised at both meetings was the upcoming Decade of Ocean Science (2021-2030), and the involvement of the underwater cultural heritage community. There is certainly potential for the contribution of submerged landscape research, with both meetings emphasising the integration of underwater cultural heritage with spatial planning, and the development of palaeoenvironmental knowledge bases.

IMG_4240.jpgIn May/June and again in September/October of last year, I assisted with a series of marine geophysical surveys conducted by the DHSC team in the Dampier Archipelago. Along with other members of the project team, I spent several weeks conducting surveys with a sidescan sonar to better understand the features at the bottom of the ocean around the Dampier Archipelago. The sidescan sonar provides high resolution imagery of the sea floor, allowing the team to analyse the seabed textures and associated features as we refine our survey strategy to analyse submerged landscapes. We’re now working through the data to search for areas which might be conducive to the preservation of archaeological material, and other noteworthy features on the seabed.

blogpostimage2.jpgAlso in 2018, I joined the DHSC team in Hjarnø, Denmark, where I assisted Francis Stankiewicz and Paul Baggaley in conducting sidescan sonar and sub-bottom profiler surveying. The data from these surveys will be analysed alongside marine sediment cores, and this combination of marine geophysics and coring provides information about how sediments developed over time, and allows us to reconstruct the past (now submerged) landscape. I was also able to join the underwater team and assist in the excavation of a submerged Mesolithic settlement. This field season marked an important milestone for me: my first dives on a submerged prehistoric site. The bulk of my undergraduate training was in terrestrial archaeology, so I learned to dive specifically to transfer my archaeological abilities to underwater prehistory. The cultural material obtained from these sites is remarkably preserved, and the knowledge to be gained from the analysis of submerged sites is critical in furthering our understanding of human interactions with the marine and coastal environment.

Wiseman_2017.jpgLast July, I travelled to Israel, where I joined a team of researchers on the Bronze and Iron Age site of Tel Dor to undertake further training in underwater archaeological methods. The Near East has an extraordinary amount of archaeological material in both the terrestrial and underwater environment, and the team at Dor aims to integrate the data from its terrestrial and underwater excavations for a rounded view of the maritime history of Dor. We also held a 2019 joint field school between Flinders University and the University of Haifa as part of the UNESCO UNITWIN Network for Underwater Archaeology.

In the past year of eclectic experiences in underwater archaeology in different parts of the world, it has become especially evident that international and interdisciplinary collaboration is key not only to my own professional development, but to undertaking well rounded and widely contextualised archaeological research. It is especially important to me as well as to the DHSC team, in our efforts to illuminate and better understand the submerged past.