Exploring the origins of man

Can autonomous underwater vehicles reveal the secrets of the ancient world?

I have a long-term research partnership in place with the oceanographers and archaeologists in Greece with the main focus to find shipwrecks that date back to the origins of civilisation.

There is this long, long period of human biological and intellectual evolution. The species developed around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago and then there is a very long period where not a lot seems to happen based on the fossil and palaeontology records. Then, 50,000 years ago, something interesting started to happen. It seems from the fossil record that bifurcation of the brain develops, so it is an indication that right-handed and left-handedness may be starting to develop. It could be before that but some people believe that this was when spoken language started to develop for the first time.

This is followed by another slow period of evolutionary change. Then about 30,000 years ago you get to this point where the animals are starting to become human - where you see the first examples of cave art and rock art - the first bone and wooden implements are formed into musical instruments - there are more complex tool systems. You also get the first burials so maybe it is the start of religion in some form. There is then another long period until about 10,000 years ago when things start to pick up speed and you start to get domestication of animals and, a little bit later on you get ceramic technology and large scale agriculture.

Then we get to this classic take-off point at about 6,000 years ago, which is the Bronze Age transition. All of a sudden you have people living in urban centres, there is large-scale agriculture, complex social, political and religious systems and there is metallurgy for the first time. There is long distance sea-borne trade and all this ties in with the second or third most important technology that humans have ever mastered or invented - written language.

Age of development

Written language evolves in the Bronze Age and I think it is because there is this long-distance trade that allows people to live in more marginal environments than say the Nile, Tigris or Euphrates valley. You need to keep track of your trade, so the first written languages are accounting systems.

This is the area that I am curious about: why is there this sudden convergence of technological innovation in the Mediterranean world? How did people begin to live in these more marginal environments, such as modern day Israel, the coast of Anatolia, and the Greek islands? What role does ship technology pay as an enabler?

The pyramids were built in the Bronze Age, the Minoans centred on Crete were Bronze Age people as were their successors, the Mycenaeans. The Trojan War takes place in the Bronze Age. It is a really interesting period that is the foundation of the modern world.

What kind of trade was going on? How these cultures developed and what the relationship was between them are all questions that I would like answered.

Trading patterns

Some 20 years ago, Martin Bernal wrote a book entitled 'Black Athena'. Bernal argues that the ancient Egyptians heavily influenced the ancient Greeks, so Greek culture really has its basis in Egypt, a theory that caused consternation with the classical historians and archaeologists.

The goal is to discern ancient trading patterns, particularly in the early Bronze Age before written language was developed. The only way we can find out about it is through archaeological remains. We can look at things on land but they are preserved differently from things under water.

Only two Bronze Age sea-going wrecks have been uncovered in the Aegean and Mediterranean - both in the shallow water off Anatolia.

We need to examine many more before we can draw solid conclusions.

We want to take the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) technology and later, the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) technology and survey huge areas of the sea floor and try to find these very subtle targets from very long ago, and investigate them with our precision techniques. Then we might be able to say something significant about the origins of civilisation.

I'm expecting that the project will take up my whole career. We will be out every summer for a few weeks at a time as any more than that gets to be difficult because you can't process the data fast enough. That is where the current bottleneck is.

Enabling technology

Images are collected by an AUV and are put together in a 2D photo mosaic. We have been working hard on developing automated software that will process images instantly into a broad-area two-dimensional mosaic.

However, this is not as easy as it sounds as, if you fly close enough to the sea floor so that you get images with really good resolution, then any vertical relief in that image creates parallax problems when piecing the mosaic together.

If you are flying two metres or two and a half metres over the sea floor and the things that you are imaging stand a metre or a metre and a half proud of the sea floor, then it is like trying to put together a photo mosaic of Manhattan while flying over it just a few metres above the top of the buildings.

We are working on how to construct a survey of a site when it has a variable amount of vertical relief. I am realising that you can plot out the resolution versus the aesthetic quality of the photo mosaic, but there must be an optimum.

You do not really want to have your vehicle running its photo mosaic survey at a low altitude - you really want to think about the shipwreck or underwater site as a jigsaw puzzle. The vehicle collects all the pieces of the jigsaw, but, like a jigsaw puzzle, you really need a box cover to give you an overall picture of what it looks like.

This means doing a high-altitude survey at the extreme level at which your light source will reach the site you are trying to image. You then collect maybe half a dozen images of the site that can be put stitched together. I admit that this will be low-resolution but it will give you the outline.

Then you fly in low and slow and collect a series of very close up, very high-resolution, well-lit images that will never be able to be mosaiced together. However, the next stage it to develop software that will allow you to run your curser over your box cover image to display all the different images you have for a particular coordinate.

The shipwreck work carried out in Greece was done in close partnership with the Hellenic Ministry of Culture Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities and the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research.

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