Seabed archaeology goes virtual

People will soon be able to operate their own virtual submersibles to explore hidden treasures at deep underwater archaeological sites.

Shipwrecks and their priceless cargoes remain under threat from erosion, deep-sea trawling activity and looting.

The Venus project team has generated 3D digital records of underwater European shipwrecks that can act as a permanent record of these sites.

The simulator is being unveiled at the BA Science Festival in Liverpool.

The Venus (Virtual Exploration of Underwater Sites) consortium has drawn on expertise from a wide range of disciplines – including computer science.

The simulation has already recreated two European shipwrecks, including Pianosa in Italy where amphorae – ancient ceramic vases – were found.

Traditionally, archaeologists would prepare detailed hand-drawn sketches of such sites.

Over the past three years, the Venus project team has developed an advanced system to acquire accurate and detailed 3D maps of precious artefacts that lie on the seabed at various depths below the surface.

Multi-beam sonar is used to locate the exact position of the artefacts, and high-resolution photographic data is collected by divers or remotely-operated unmanned vehicles.

Archaeologists will be able to extract statistical information from the data and determine where they are most likely to find cargo.

The general public will be able to use the simulator simply to explore the deep.

The simulator will go on display at the Deep Aquarium in Hull, and the software will also be accessible online.

“Members of public can experience the actual dive process – from coming off the vessel and piloting a submarine down to an accurate model of the seabed,” said Dr Paul Chapman from the University of Hull.

“Presenting Venus is this way allows us to capture the imagination of the general public in a way that could not be achieved using traditional methods of dissemination,” he added.