The Multi-disciplinary Search for Underwater Archaeology in the Southern Red Sea

  • Garry Momber
  • Dimitris Sakellariou
  • Grigoris Rousakis
  • Geoff N. Bailey


During the height of the last glacial maximum about 20,000 years ago, the sea-level was 120–130 m lower, making movement out of Africa into Arabia relatively easy. The Hanish Sill at the southern end of the Red Sea would only have been a few metres deep, less than 10 km wide and interspersed with small islands. Extensive evidence of archaeological artefacts dating to the Middle Palaeolithic has been found on the southern Arabian Peninsula demonstrating an earlier hominin presence. These movements might well have been facilitated by former periods of low sea level, as for the last million years or so, sea levels have averaged 40–60 m lower than today. These were times when large areas of continental shelf around the Farasan Islands would have been exposed as a terrestrial landscape, providing a coastal environment that would have been attractive for animals and humans. This paper looks at a series of fieldwork projects that have helped characterise the submerged landscape and assess the potential for human occupation of the drowned lands around the Farasan Islands. Significant submerged wave-cut notches, platforms and lacustrine features were recorded, evidence for tectonic realignments was identified and areas with the potential for human occupation were investigated. The fieldwork has provided new information on the nature of the drowned landscape, characterised potential sites of human occupation and identified the challenges that need to be addressed by archaeologists as the investigations continue.



We thank HRH King Salman bin Abul Aziz Al Saud, formerly Crown Prince and Minister of Defense, and the Hydrographic Department of the Saudi Ministry of Defense, for granting permission to undertake the offshore work, and HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) for granting permission and support for our archaeological research in Saudi Arabia from its inception. We also thank Dr. Ali Al-Ghabban, Vice-President of SCTH, other SCTH staff, notably Dr. Saad al Rashid, Jamal Omar, Dr. Abdullah Al Saud, Dr. Hussein Abu Hassan and Dr. Abdullah Al Zahrani for ongoing support, and Dr. Abdullah Alsharekh, Department of Archaeology, King Saud University, for crucial support and participation in all phases of our research. Funding for the underwater work has been supplied by the British Academy, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) UK, through its EFCHED programme (Environmental, Factors in Human Evolution and Dispersal), the Leverhulme Trust, the National Geographic, and the European Research Council (ERC) under the Ideas Programme of the 7th Framework Programme as Advanced Grant 269586 ‘DISPERSE: Dynamic Landscapes, Coastal Environments and Human Dispersals’. For additional support and funding for the offshore work, we thank in particular Saudi Aramco for the provision of their vessel M/V Midyan in 2006, Shell Companies Overseas, the Saudi British Bank (SABB), the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (HCMR), and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). This is DISPERSE contribution no. 42.


  1. Alsharekh AM, Bailey GN (eds) (2013) Coastal prehistory in southwest Arabia and the Farasan Islands 2004–2009 field investigations. Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, RiyadhGoogle Scholar
  2. Ambrose SH (1998) Late Pleistocene human population bottlenecks, volcanic winter and differentiation of modern humans. J Hum Evol 34:623–651CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Andersen SH (1993) Coastal adaptations and marine exploitation in Late Mesolithic Denmark—with special emphasis on the Limfjord region. In: Fischer A (ed) Man and Sea in the Mesolithic. Oxbow, Oxford, pp 41–66Google Scholar
  4. Antonioli F, Presti VL, Rovere A, Ferranti L, Anzidei M, Furlani S, Mastronuzzi G, Orru PE, Scicchitano G, Sannino G, Spampinato CR, Pagliarulo R, Deiana G, Sabata E, Sans P, Vacchi M, Vecchio A (2015) Tidal notches in Mediterranean Sea: a comprehensive analysis. Quat Sci Rev 119:66–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Armitage SJ, Jasim SA, Marks AE, Parker AG, Usik VI, Uerpmann HP (2011) The southern route “Out of Africa”: evidence for an early expansion of modern humans into Arabia. Science 331:453–456CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bailey GN (2004a) World prehistory from the margins: the role of coastlines in human evolution. J Interdiscip Stud Hist Archaeol 1(1):39–50Google Scholar
  7. Bailey GN (2004b) The wider significance of submerged archaeological sites and their relevance to world prehistory. In: Flemming NC (ed) Submarine prehistoric archaeology of the North Sea: research priorities and collaboration with industry. CBA research report 141. Council for British Archaeology, York, pp 3–10Google Scholar
  8. Bailey GN (2009) The Red Sea, coastal landscapes and hominin dispersals. In: Petraglia MD, Rose JI (eds) The evolution of human populations in Arabia. Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, pp 15–37Google Scholar
  9. Bailey GN, Alsharekh A (in press) Palaeolithic archaeology, coastal prehistory and submerged landscapes in southwest Saudi Arabia and the Farasan Islands: DISPERSE field reports, 2012–2015. Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, RiyadhGoogle Scholar
  10. Bailey GN, Flemming NC (2008) Archaeology of the continental shelf: marine resources, submerged landscapes and underwater archaeology. Quat Sci Rev 27:2153–2165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bailey GN, King GCP (2011) Dynamic landscapes and human dispersal patterns: tectonics, coastlines and the reconstruction of human habitats. Quat Sci Rev 30:1533–1553CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bailey GN, King GCP, Flemming NC, Lambeck K, Momber G, Moran LJ, Al-Sharekh AM, Vita-Finzi C (2007a) Coastlines, submerged landscapes and human evolution: the Red Sea basin and the Farasan Islands. J Island Coast Archaeol 2:127–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bailey GN, Al-Sharekh AM, Flemming NC, Lambeck K, Momber G, Sinclair AGM, Vita-Finzi C (2007b) Coastal prehistory in the southern Red Sea Basin, underwater archaeology and the Farasan Islands. Proc Seminar Arabian Stud 37:1–16Google Scholar
  14. Bailey GN, King GCP, Devès M, Hausmann N, Inglis R, Laurie E, Meredith-Williams M, Momber G, Winder I, Alsharekh A, Sakellariou D (2012) DISPERSE: dynamic landscapes, coastal environments and human dispersals. Antiquity 86(334).
  15. Bailey GN, Williams MG, Alsharekh AM (2013) Shell mounds of the Farasan Islands, Saudi Arabia. In: Bailey GN, Hardy K, Camara A (eds) Shell energy: mollusc shells as coastal resources. Oxbow, Oxford, pp 241–254Google Scholar
  16. Bailey GN, Devès MH, Inglis RH, Meredith-Williams MG, Momber G, Sakellariou D, Sinclair AGM, Rousakis G, Al Ghamdi S, Alsharekh AM (2015) Blue Arabia: Palaeolithic and underwater survey in SW Saudi Arabia and the role of coasts in Pleistocene dispersal. Quatern Int 382:42–57. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Bailey GN, Meredith-Williams M, Alsharekh A, Hausmann N (2018) The archaeology of Pleistocene coastal environments and human dispersals in the Red Sea: insights from the Farasan IslandsGoogle Scholar
  18. Bantan RA (1999) Geology and sedimentary environments of Farasan Bank (Saudi Arabia) southern Red Sea: a combined remote sensing and field study. PhD thesis, Department of Geology, Royal Holloway, University of LondonGoogle Scholar
  19. Bingham B, Foley B, Singh H, Camilli R, Delaporta K, Eustice R, Mallios A, Mindell D, Roman C, Sakellariou D (2010) Robotic tools for deep water archaeology: surveying an ancient shipwreck with an autonomous underwater vehicle. J Field Robot 27(6):702–717. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Brubakk AO, Neuman TS (2003) Bennett and Elliott’s physiology and medicine of diving, 5th edn. Saunders Ltd., US, 304 pGoogle Scholar
  21. Chappell J, Shackleton NJ (1986) Oxygen isotopes and sea level. Nature 324:137–140CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Devès MH, Inglis RH, Meredith-Williams MG, Al Ghamdi S, Alsharekh AM, Bailey GN (2013) Palaeolithic survey in southwest Saudi Arabia: methodology and preliminary results. Adumatu 27:7–30Google Scholar
  23. Dullo WC, Montaggioni L (1998) Modern Red Sea coral reefs: a review of their morphologies and zonation. In: Purser BH, Bosence DWJ (eds) Sedimentation and tectonics in rift basins: Red Sea-Gulf of Aden. Chapman & Hall, London, pp 583–594CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Faure H, Walter RC, Grant DR (2002) The coastal oasis: ice age springs on emerged continental shelves. Global Planet Change 33:47–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Flemming N (2004) The prehistory of the North Sea floor in the context of continental shelf archaeology from the Mediterranean to the Nova Zemlya. In: Flemming NC (ed) Submarine prehistoric archaeology of the North Sea. CBA research report 141, York, pp 11–20Google Scholar
  26. Flemming NC, Harff J, Moura D (2017) Non-cultural processes of site formation, preservation and destruction. In: Flemming NC, Harff J, Moura D, Burgess A, Bailey GN (eds) Submerged landscapes of the European continental shelf. Wiley Blackwell, pp 51–82Google Scholar
  27. Gerth WA (2006) Decompression sickness and oxygen toxicity in US surface-supplied He-O2 diving. In: Lang MA, Smith NE (eds) Proceedings of advanced scientific diving workshop. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, pp 24–35Google Scholar
  28. Hausmann N, Meredith-Williams M, Bailey GN (2015) Results of recent excavations on the Farasan Islands and studies of large-scale prehistoric shellfish gathering in the Red Sea. In: Bicho N, Detry C, Price TD, Cunha E (eds) Muge 150th anniversary conference, vol 2. Cambridge Scholars Press, Cambridge, pp 301–313Google Scholar
  29. Hausmann N, Kokkinaki O, Leng MJ (2018) Red Sea palaeoclimate: stable isotope and element-ratio analysis of marine mollusc shellsGoogle Scholar
  30. Harff J, Flemming NC, Groh A, Hunicke B, Lericolais G, Meschede M, Rosentau A, Sakellariou D, Uscinowicz, S, Zhang W, Zorita E (2017) Sea level and climate. In: Flemming NC, Harff J, Moura D, Burgess A, Bailey GN (eds) Submerged landscapes of the European continental shelf. Wiley Blackwell, pp 11–50Google Scholar
  31. Hudec MR, Jackson MPA (2007) Terra infirma: understanding salt tectonics. Earth-Sci Rev 82:1–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Inglis RH, Sinclair AG, Shuttleworth A, Alsharekh A, Devès MH, Meredith-Williams M, Al Ghamdi S, Bailey G (2014a) Investigating the Palaeolithic landscapes and archaeology of the Jizan and Qunfudah regions, southwestern Saudi Arabia. Proc Seminar Arabian Stud 44:193–212Google Scholar
  33. Inglis RH, Sinclair AGM, Shuttleworth A, Al Maamary A, Budd W, Hausmann N, Meredith-Williams MG, Alsharekh AM, Al Ghamdi S, Bailey GN (2014b) Preliminary report on 2014 fieldwork in southwest Saudi Arabia by the Disperse Project: (1) Jizan and Asir Provinces.
  34. Inglis RH, Rasul N, Bailey GN, Bosworth B (2018) Investigating the fossil coral terraces and coastal archaeology of the southern Red SeaGoogle Scholar
  35. Joiner JT (2001) NOAA diving manual: diving for science and technology, 4th edn. Best Publishing, US, 660 pGoogle Scholar
  36. King GCP, Bailey GN (2006) Tectonics and human evolution. Antiquity 80:265–286CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lambeck K, Chappell J (2001) Sea level change through the last glacial cycle. Science 292:679–686CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lambeck K, Purcell A, Flemming N, Vita-Finzi C, Alsharekh A, Bailey GN (2011) Sea level and shoreline reconstructions for the Red Sea: isostatic and tectonic considerations and implications for hominin migration out of Africa. Quat Sci Rev 30:3542–3574CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Le Bas TP, Huvenne VAI (2009) Acquisition and processing of backscatter data for habitat mapping. Comparison of multibeam and sidescan systems. Appl Acoustics 70:1248–1257CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Mellars PA, Gori KC, Carr M, Soares PA, Richards MB (2013) Genetic and archaeological perspectives on the initial modern human colonization of southern Asia. Proc Natl Acad Sci 110:10699–10704CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Meredith-Williams MG, Hausmann N, Bailey GN, Inglis RH (2014a) 4200 new shell mound sites in the southern Red Sea. Internet Archaeol 37.
  42. Meredith-Williams MG, Hausmann N, Bailey GN, King GCP, Alsharekh A, Al Ghamdi S (2014b) Mapping, modelling and predicting prehistoric coastal archaeology in the southern Red Sea using new applications of digital imaging techniques. World Archaeol 46(1):10–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Missiaen T, Sakellariou D, Flemming N (2017a) Survey strategies and techniques in underwater geoarchaeological research: an overview with emphasis on prehistoric sites. In: Bailey G, Harff J, Sakellariou D (eds) Under the Sea: archaeology and palaeolandscapes of the continental shelf. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 21–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Missiaen, T Pieters M, Maes F, Kruiver P, De Maeyer P, Seys J (2017b) The SeArch project: towards an assessment methodology and sustainable management policy for the archaeological heritage of the North Sea in Belgium. In: Bailey G, Harff J, Sakellariou D (eds) Under the sea: archaeology and palaeolandscapes of the continental shelf. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 415–424CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Mitchell SJ (2007) Technical diving. In: Moon RE, Piantadosi CA, Camporesi EM (eds) Dr. Peter Bennett symposium Proceedings, Held 1 May 2004, Durham, NCGoogle Scholar
  46. Momber G, Peeters JHM (2017) Postglacial human dispersal and submerged landscapes in north-west Europe. In: Harff J, Sakellariou D (eds) Bailey G. Under the Sea: archaeology and palaeolandscapes of the continental shelf, Springer, pp 321–334Google Scholar
  47. Momber G (2011) Submerged landscape excavations in the Solent, southern Britain: climate change and cultural development. In: Benjamin J, Bonsall C, Pickard C, Fischer A (eds) Submerged prehistory. Oxbow Books, Oxford, pp 85–98Google Scholar
  48. Momber G, Gillespie J, Mason B, Mason C, Tidbury L, Mozayen W, Hamzi F, Al Sadiq J, Al Haiti A, Meredith–Williams M, Hausmann N, Aqeeli A, Mofta M, Bailey G (2014) Preliminary report on 2014 fieldwork in southwest Saudi Arabia by the DISPERSE Project: (2) Underwater research in the Farasan Islands.
  49. Momber G (2014) Submerged archaeology and cultural responses to climatic amelioration. In: Evans A, Flatman J, Flemming NC (eds) Prehistoric archaeology on the continental shelf: a global review. Springer, New York, pp 193–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Oppenheimer S (2003) Out of Eden: the peopling of the world. Constable, LondonGoogle Scholar
  51. Peeters JHM, Momber G (2014) The southern North Sea and the human occupation of northwest Europe after the Last Glacial maximum. Neth J Geosci 93(1–2):55–70Google Scholar
  52. Petraglia MD, Breeze PS, Groucutt HS (2018) Blue Arabia, green Arabia: examining human colonisation and dispersal modelsGoogle Scholar
  53. Purser BH, Bosence DWJ (eds) (1998) Sedimentation and tectonics in rift basins: Red Sea-Gulf of Aden. Chapman & Hall, LondonGoogle Scholar
  54. Rohling EJ, Fenton M, Jorissen FJ, Bertrand P, Ganssen G, Caulet JP (1998) Magnitudes of sea level stillstands in the past 500,000 years. Nature 394:162–165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Sakellariou D, Bailey GN, Momber G, Meredith-Williams MG, Alsharekh A, Rousakis G, Panagiotopoulos I, Morfis I, Stavrakakis S, Pampidis I, Renieris P, Georgiou P, Kalogirou S, Mantopoulos P, Stasinos V, Kallergis M, Manousakis L, Al Nomani SM, Devès M (2013) Preliminary report on underwater survey in the Farasan Islands by the R/V Aegaeo, May–June 2013.
  56. Sakellariou D, Rousakis G, Panagiotopoulos I, Morfis I, Bailey G (2018) Geological structure and late quaternary geomorphological evolution of the Farasan Islands continental shelf, south Red Sea, SW Saudi ArabiaGoogle Scholar
  57. Shackleton NJ (1987) Oxygen isotopes, ice volume and sea level. Quat Sci Rev 6:183–190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Siddall M, Rohling EJ, Almogi-Labin A, Hemleben C, Meischner D, Schmeltzer I, Smeed DA (2003) Sea level fluctuations during the last glacial cycle. Nature 423:853–858CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Sinclair A, Inglis RH, Shuttleworth A, Foulds F, Bailey GN, Alsharekh A (2018) Landscape archaeology, Palaeolithic survey and coastal change along the southern Red Sea of Saudi ArabiaGoogle Scholar
  60. Walter RC, Buffler RT, Bruggemann JJ, Guillaume MMM, Berhe SM, Negassi B, Libsekal Y, Cheng H, Edwards RL, von Gosel R, Neraudeau D, Gagnon M (2000) Early human occupation of the Red Sea coast of Eritrea during the last interglacial. Nature 405:65–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Winder I, King GCP, Devès M, Bailey GN (2013) Complex topography and human evolution: the missing link. Antiquity 87:333–349CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Zarins J, Ibrahim M, Potts D, Edens C (1979) Saudi Arabian archaeological reconnaissance 1978. The preliminary report on the third phase of the comprehensive archaeological survey program—the coastal province. Atlal J Saudi Arabian Archaeol 3:9–42Google Scholar
  63. Zarins J, Whalen N, Ibrahim M, Mursi AJ, Khan M (1980) The comprehensive archaeological survey program. Preliminary report on the Central and Southwestern provinces. Atlal J Saudi Arabian Archaeol 4:9–36Google Scholar
  64. Zarins J, Al-Jawad Murad A, Al-Yish KS (1981) The comprehensive archaeological survey program. The second preliminary report on the Southwestern province. Atlal J Saudi Arabian Archaeol 5:9–42Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Garry Momber
    • 1
    • 2
  • Dimitris Sakellariou
    • 3
  • Grigoris Rousakis
    • 3
  • Geoff N. Bailey
    • 2
    • 4
  1. 1.Maritime Archaeology TrustSouthamptonUK
  2. 2.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of YorkYorkUK
  3. 3.Hellenic Centre for Marine ResearchAnavyssosGreece
  4. 4.College of Humanities, Arts and Social SciencesFlinders UniversityAdelaideAustralia

Personalised recommendations