Determining potential: onshore/offshore prehistory

Sturt, Fraser, Standen, Tyra, Grant, Michael, Dix, Justin, Marshall, Peter, Cameron, Nigel and Hughes, Paul (2016) Determining potential: onshore/offshore prehistory , Southampton, GB University of Southampton 203pp.


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Historic England commissioned a team from the University of Southampton to undertake project 6918, ‘Determining Potential: onshore/offshore prehistory’ between January 2014 and July 2015. The central focus of the research was on evaluating methods that might be used to help move from generic to more specific understandings of archaeological potential within such environs. A region of the Bristol Channel and Somerset Levels was chosen as the study area within which to carry out this work, due to its already noted high potential for contributing to our understanding of prehistory. Three overarching aims were given for the project:

a. Assess the efficacy of predictive modelling for the determination of the potential for submerged prehistoric archaeology in English waters;
b. Evaluate the range of methods open to archaeologists when assessing the potential for submerged prehistoric archaeology offshore, and how best to investigate/mitigate for it; and
c. Extend our knowledge of key inter-tidal and offshore sequences in a region already known for its nationally significant inter-tidal and onshore prehistoric record.

This monograph describes three different approaches to modelling potential: inductive, deductive and geoarchaeological. The conclusion is reached that inductive predictive modelling is currently an inappropriate method for improving our understanding of offshore potential (and in some instances deeply buried onshore locations) in England. This is due to low data density and high degrees of uncertainty with regard to prehistoric activity. Deductive and geoarchaeologically focused methods were found to hold much greater promise for determining potential. However, again the need for high quality input data was highlighted. All of the above approaches should be seen as iterative in nature, and require a commitment to improving data accessibility and joined up approaches to acquisition. It also requires a greater degree of communication with colleagues working in countries whose territorial waters directly abut England’s.

The above recognition of the need to improve our baseline understanding of both palaeoenvironmental change and archaeological finds density is one of the most significant and challenging outcomes from this project. In carrying out the review to address point b above, and the fieldwork to address point c, it became clear that we need to sample larger volumes across a wider range of ecological niches. Put simply, without adopting methods that maximise the chance of recovering material culture offshore we will never be able to:

1. Answer key research questions identified in regional and national research agendas that are pertinent to both the onshore and offshore archaeological record.
2. Improve our ability to pinpoint areas likely to produce important finds.

The lack of direct engagement offshore, the limited nature of inter-tidal investigations and the uneven distribution of commercial activity onshore has led to a record that is hard to interpret with regard to the specifics of potential, beyond discussion in the broadest terms.

Rather than being a negative outcome this is seen to be a positive result. The act of creating a deductive model forced detailed analysis of the qualities of input data, and highlighted lacunae in our understanding. In ground-truthing the deductive model new information was generated that contributes to our growing appreciation of the complexities of environmental change across the study region, and areas in need of future research clearly identified. Finally, through accepting that we may not be able to answer questions we have already raised of the offshore record without a change in approach, this research establishes the urgent need for more detailed consideration of how we manage and carry out research into the submerged prehistoric record, as well as compiling and distributing these results.

Item Type: Monograph (Project Report)
Organisations: Geology & Geophysics, Archaeology
ePrint ID: 392075
Date :
Date Event
5 July 2015Submitted
19 January 2016Published
Date Deposited: 14 Apr 2016 13:15
Last Modified: 17 Apr 2017 03:39
Further Information:Google Scholar

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