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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Research project: Geo-archaeology - New high-resolution 3D seismic imaging

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The big science question: There is an urgent need to image buried objects in marine environments at very high spacial resolution. This is the case, for example, to locate and image archaeologically valuable shipwrecks, to discover landscapes from the earliest occupation of the NW European peninsula, or to provide forensic tools looking for buried bodies. Attempts to image buried artefacts at very high resolution in the marine environment previously met with limited success due to inappropriate equipment, inadequate data processing methods, and a lack of information on the acoustic properties of archaeological materials. Thus, the big question here is how modern geophysical techniques can be combined with archaeological approaches to open new fields of discovery and protect our heritage.

Features from the Thames estuary which are believed to date to pre-450000 years BP and are now crossed by a Holocene sandbank (Data courtesy of SSE Renewables and Crown Estate)
A submerged palaeo-river channel
Research details

Combining expertise in marine geophysics and geoarchaeology, multidisciplinary research by the University of Southampton has led to the development of new acoustic methods to identify and investigate sites of submerged archaeology. Initially, The project involved pioneering the use of a high-resolution, sub-bottom profiling system, known as 2D Chirp, to image the shallow subsurface for marine archaeological investigation. Acknowledging the limitations of a 2D survey - which samples data only from seismic waves travelling in one thin vertical plane and so cannot realistically model the Earth's subsurface - Southampton researchers developed a new 3D Chirp system. Sampling the entire wave field in 3D enables a more representative visualisation of the subsurface. In addition to its archaeological applications, research has been conducted on 3D Chirp's ability to identify unexploded ordnance, and to enhance understanding of marine slope stability mechanisms for offshore geohazards such as underwater landslides and tsunamis.

Buried shipwreck
Buried shipwreck

Building on this geophysical research and drawing on geoarchaeological theory and methodology, Southampton developed new approaches to investigate and characterise the submerged archaeology of the world's continental shelves, which are being threatened by the expansion of industry.


Key facts:

  • New methods reveal submerged archaeology & improve the preservation of underwater cultural heritage.
  • We have developed UK government guidance, published by English Heritage in 2012, for the offshore use of marine archaeological geophysics.
  • This work brought economic impact by commercialisation of the 3D Chirp development and by application for management of marine aggregate materials.
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