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Mapping an Underwater World Volume 60 Number 1, January/February 2007
by Mike Pitts

Digital modeling re-creates submerged Neolithic riverscapes.


At the HP Visual and Spatial Technology Centre in Birmingham, Vincent Gaffney and the North Sea Palaeolandscapes team don special glasses for a 3-D view of the channel of the ancient Shotton River. (Courtesy Vincent Gaffney) [LARGER IMAGE]

I am in a dark room at the University of Birmingham in England, looking at a 10,000-year-old landscape projected on a wall. The map in front of me is 12 feet across, and glows in unfocused luminous orange. When I put on battery-operated polarizing glasses, it jumps sharply into three dimensions.

"If you hold a tracker," says geologist Simon Fitch, handing me a gadget that looks like a wired staple gun, "the image knows where you are, and you can walk into the data." Suddenly I feel as if I'm flying up a huge river system the researchers have named the Shotton, after a famous Birmingham geologist and archaeologist. "Imagine," says Fitch, a tall graduate student wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, "crossing that channel in a log boat."

Through the millennia that people have been in northern Europe, sea levels have risen and fallen as glaciers have retreated and advanced, periodically exposing land the size of California around Britain's shores. Often this land supported a variety of terrestrial life, from mammoths to people, in environments ranging from tundra to forest. Deep under the North Sea today are likely to be perfectly preserved plant and animal remains, human bones, and stone tools, sealed in stratified deposits--a historic archive of rare value now threatened by industrial activity.

The map I am flying through is only part of a visualization of 9,000 square miles of this ancient land surface now beneath the sea and buried under layers of mud, sand, and gravel. Seismic waves generated by oil prospectors reflect off these layers, revealing hills and valleys below and unrelated to the modern sea floor.

"No one knows where the great European rivers once flowed," says Vincent Gaffney, a driven, ebullient archaeologist. He plans to resolve that. Early results from the North Sea Palaeolandscapes project--the first attempt to map this chilly Atlantis--promise to transform the way we think about north European prehistory. The techniques developed here could do the same around the world.

"You'd have to go to Mars to name rivers," Gaffney says. "And here we could be doing it every day!"

Mike Pitts is editor of British Archaeology.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America