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Technology, archaeology, and the deep sea: 
Current research and future directions

David A. Mindell, Ph.D.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Wednesday, February 7, 2001
3:00 p.m.—Pacific Forum

Developments in technology are opening the deep ocean to archaeological investigation. A number of projects in recent years have proven the viability of doing archaeology in the deep ocean, particularly the discovery of Roman and Carthaginian shipwrecks more than a mile deep in the Mediterranean Sea off Sicily, and recent surveys of Phonecian wrecks (8th-century b.c.) off Israel. The next frontier for deepwater archaeology is the Black Sea, which is more than 2,000 meters deep. Below about 150 meters the water is anoxic, and recent evidence indicates the Black Sea harbors ancient shipwrecks in a high degree of preservation—veritable gold mines of archaeological information. Such finds could radically alter our notion of the ancient Black Sea region itself and its role as an interface between Europe and Asia. The hypothesis by Ryan and Pitman about an ancient (possibly biblical) flood in the region adds to the Black Sea’s archaeological potential, as Neolithic dwellings or settlements may also be found in deep water.

Finding such archaeological sites requires extensive and detailed surveys, and the MIT Deep Sea Archaeology Research group is developing technologies to properly document sites in this difficult environment. High-quality imaging sonars are already being brought to bear, as are remotely operated and autonomous vehicles. A new acoustic profiling instrument allows archaeologists to map the structure of a shipwreck while it is buried in the mud, and then "virtually excavate," or peel off, vertical layers of computer data to assess the underlying structure without having to dig the site.

The talk reviews the current state of precision mapping research for archaeology, presents data and imagery from recent expeditions, and outlines future research directions in precision mapping, remote excavation, and autonomous search and survey.

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