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Marine Geophysics

Marine Geophysics

3D seismics in the Arabian Gulf. Sea level change has been a powerful catalyst for migration and for the displacement of past populations, none more so than the Arabian Gulf.

THE EXTENT OF ICE SHEETS in the northern hemisphere caused a drop in sea level of more than 100 metres below that of the present day (right). The Arabian Gulf is a relatively shallow and would have been an open landscape with a constant supply of fresh water prior to 14,000 years ago. The analysis of seismic reflection surveys within the Arabian Gulf are now revealing former landscape features, such as coastlines, estuaries and major fluvial features that have not been seen for thousands of years

A Model of the Arabian Peninsula Showing Sea Level 120m Below Present Sea Level.

A Model of the Arabian Peninsula Showing Sea Level 120m Below Present Sea Level.

The Submerged Landscape of the Arabian Gulf

The Arabian Gulf averages about 35 metres in depth with the seabed between Abu Dhabi and Qatar even shallower, for the most part less than 15 metres deep. For thousands of years the Ur-Shatt (a confluence of the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers) provided fresh water to the Gulf, as it flowed through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman.

Bathymetric data suggests there were two palaeo-basins in the Arabian Gulf. The central basin, may have approached an area of 20,000km2, comparable at its fullest extent to lakes such as Lake Malawi in Africa. Between 12,000 and 9000 years ago much of the Gulf floor would have remained exposed, only becoming subject to marine transgression after 8,000 years ago.


Proposed model of the Arabian Gulf at the Last Glacial Maximum around 18000 years ago

The Potential for Landscape Mapping Using Geophysical Data Sets

Over recent years extensive marine geophysical data sets have been gathered to map deep subsurface rock formations. However, the top section of the data can be re-processed to detail the currently unknown shallow palaeo-geomorphology of the Arabian Gulf.

Seismic Reflection Survery

Seismic Reflection Survery

Of particular interest is seismic reflection survey, which enables analysis of former landscapes and the interpretation and mapping of large-scale landscape features. Such surveys have provided the opportunity to reveal the presence of coastlines, estuaries and major fluvial features active in prehistory.

These spectacular results add further value to existing data, significantly changing the way that the marine heritage is perceived; and makes these submerged landscapes accessible to archaeologists. Mapping such palaeo-landscapes maximises the effectiveness of future, targeted archaeological survey and provides a context into which archaeological discoveries can be placed.

The QNHER Palaeo-landscapes Mapping Project

A collaborative team comprised of staff from the Qatar Museums Authority and the University of Birmingham are now mapping the former late Pleistocene and early Holocene palaeo-landscape of the Southern Arabian Gulf.

In the very near future this will facilitate direct environmental management by identifying ‘palaeo-environmental sediment traps’ within marine areas. The purpose of this is to resolve some of the problems associated with the study of the late Palaeolithic and early Holocene within the arid environment of the Arabian Peninsula.


Briefing Before Diving

Exploitation of Submerged Landscapes

It is likely that marine resources will be subject to increasing exploitation in future years, with an emphasis on the recovery of valuable mineral resources and possibly aggregates extraction. However, the fact that the Arabian Gulf is so shallow makes this region more accessible than many other submerged landscapes. Archaeologists will therefore, hopefully, be called upon to provide methodologies to assess the potential archaeological potential of these landscapes while facilitating regional development.

The submerged landscape of the Gulf Basin and the impact of marine transgressions are fundamental to understanding the dynamicsof regional migrations during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene. It is intended that the marine mapping program will form the basis of a cohesive strategy for managing the archaeological resource in marine areas.

Such strategies impact upon education, the accessibility of heritage information to the public, and ultimately the protection of this marine cultural landscape. In addition the mapping project will provide a better understanding of both the spatial distribution and character of former landscapes, and thereby provide a platform for long-term cultural management, conservation, research and education.

Suggested further reading

Europe’s Lost World: The rediscovery of Doggerland, by Vincent Gaffney, Simon Fitch & David Smith

The North Sea Palaeolandscape Project Birmingham University’s VISTA – Visual and Spatial Technology Centre

Beech, M., Cuttler, R., Moscrop, D., Kallweit, H. and Martin, J. 2008. Excavations at the Neolithic Settlement of MR11 on Marawah Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: 2004 season. Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Symposium on Recent Archaeological discoveries in the Emirates, Al Ain 2004.2:25-41.

Burroughs, W., J. 2005. Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos Cambridge University Press.

Cuttler, R., Fitch, S., Al-Naimi, F., A. 2011 Considering the ‘Terra Incognita’ and the implications for the Cultural Resource Management of the Arabian Gulf Palaeolandscape. Archaeology of the United Arab Emirates: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the Archaeology of the U.A.E. P Hellyer, H Al Naboodah and D Potts (eds) Trident Press Ltd

Gaffney V., Fitch S. and Smith, D. 2009. Europe’s Lost World: The rediscovery of Doggerland. Council for British Archaeology, Research report 160. Lambeck, K. 1996. Shoreline reconstructions for the Persian Gulf since the last glacial maximum. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 142: p 43-57.