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Mapping sunken landscape lost to the waves 8,000 years ago

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‘Discovery Project’ will bring prehistoric underwater landscape to life

University of Bradford archaeologists will lead part of a major national project to connect the UK’s cultural artefacts and historical archives and make them more accessible to the public.  

Towards a National Collection’s Discovery Project is an ambitious £14.5m five-year initiative, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).  

It will utilise machine learning and AI to create cross-collection searching, exhibitions and interactive maps of historical data which at present is dispersed across museums, archives, universities and other centres.

The investigation is the largest of its kind to be undertaken anywhere in the world. It extends across the UK, involving 15 universities and 63 heritage collections and institutions of different scales, with over 120 individual researchers and collaborators.

Doggerland map

The University of Bradford, in collaboration with Historic England, will lead part of the Unpath'd Waters project, which aims to make the UK’s maritime heritage more accessible. A team from Bradford will create an interactive map of the area known as Doggerland, a vast area that used to connect England to mainland Europe.  

Professor Vince Gaffney, 50th Anniversary Chair in the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, said: “This is a massive project that will help preserve our national heritage archives and make them much more accessible. We are part of the group pulling together the marine archive.   

“We will be looking at the underwater landscapes of the North Sea, which up until about 8,000 years ago was above water. People lived on this land. We know this because chance finds from the seabed have included stone tools, human remains and a variety of other man-made objects. The team at Bradford has spent the last five years mapping the seafloor as part of a major European-funded project and we’re just at the stage now where we’re able to pinpoint where we believe settlements may have been.”  

The funding comes at a time when vast areas of the North Sea are being developed to create wind farms. Prof Gaffney said it was imperative not only to disseminate information on the archaeology of the North Sea but to use this information to plan work with developers to safeguard hitherto undiscovered underwater archaeological sites.

Map showing planned windfarm development in southern North SeaAbove: map showinig area of southern North Sea due to be developed for windfarming  

“Huge areas of the North Sea are either being developed or will be developed in the near future. Green energy is vital, it’s our future and while we must support that, this is also a way of showing we need to take responsibility for the heritage of the area. Coastal shelves are being developed around the world, so this project, and related research, may help others preserve their own heritage.”

Climate change

One aspect of the project will see the creation of a digital map, showing what Doggerland once looked like, with hills, river valleys and possibly even human settlements.  

Prof Gaffney said: “The idea is to create an interactive map so people can explore the impact of climate change on the landscape since the last ice age. This will be online and accessible and will act as a springboard for new research.”  

Together, the Discovery Projects represent a vital step in the UK’s ambition to maintain leadership in cross-disciplinary research, both between different humanities disciplines and between the humanities and other fields. Towards a National Collection will set a global standard for other countries building their own collections, enhancing collaboration between the UK’s renowned heritage and national collections worldwide.  

Barney Sloane, Historic England’s Principal Investigator for ‘Unpath’d Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK’ said: “As an island nation, our maritime heritage is of fundamental importance to who we are. I am delighted to be leading one of the five Discovery Projects known as Unpath’d Waters. It will transform the way in which researchers and the public can access the huge variety of collections held in museums, universities, heritage institutions, commercial organisations and indeed by the public. The project will bring together expertise in digital humanities, computer science and marine heritage and will unleash the massive research potential of our shared maritime past.”

Banner showing TaNC Discovery Projects

Heritage meets AI

Professor Christopher Smith, Executive Chair, Arts and Humanities Research Council, said: “This moment marks the start of the most ambitious phase of research and development we have ever undertaken as a country in the space where culture and heritage meets AI technology. Towards a National Collection is leading us to a long-term vision of a new national research infrastructure that will be of benefit to collections, researchers and audiences right across the UK.”  

Rebecca Bailey, Programme Director, Towards a National Collection, said: “Collectively, we aim to dissolve the disciplinary silos that exist in universities and public collections. Our driving mission is to open up global access to the UK’s world class collections. By harnessing emerging technologies to the creative interdisciplinary talents of our research teams, eventually everyone will have the ability to access an outstanding trove of stories, imagery and research linking together the limitless ideas and avenues in our national collections. From community archives to overlooked artists; from botanical specimens to the ship-wrecked Mary Rose.”  

FURTHER INFORMATION  

About the Unpath’d Waters project  

Heritage covering 23,000 years is represented by collections of charts, documents, images, film, oral histories, sonar surveys, seismic data, bathymetry (the measurement of depth of water), archaeological investigations, artefacts, objects and artworks. But they are often dispersed, unconnected and inaccessible.   

The Unpath’d Waters project will bring them together, enabling people to reveal new stories, make new connections and manage our past effectively and in sustainable ways.  

It will also visualise underwater landscapes, identify shipwrecks and artefacts in order to uncover previously untold stories, and new questions to guide future research.  

About the Discovery Projects

The five ‘Discovery Projects’ will harness the potential of new technology to dissolve barriers between collections - opening up public access and facilitating research across a range of sources and stories held in different physical locations.  

One of the central aims is to empower and diversify audiences by involving them in the research and creating new ways for them to access and interact with collections. In addition to innovative online access, the projects will generate artist commissions, community fellowships, computer simulations, and travelling exhibitions.  

The programme is funded through investment by UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund and delivered by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).  

The projects are:-  

● The Congruence Engine: Digital Tools for New Collections-Based Industrial  

Histories - Principal Investigator: Dr Timothy Boon, Science Museum Group  

● Our Heritage, Our Stories: Linking and searching community-generated digital  

content to develop the people's national collection - Principal Investigator: Professor Lorna Hughes, University of Glasgow  

● Transforming Collections: Reimagining Art, Nation and Heritage  

Principal Investigator - Professor susan pui san lok, University of the Arts London  

● The Sloane Lab: Looking back to build future shared collections Principal  

Investigator - Professor Julianne Nyhan, University College London and TU Darmstadt  

● Unpath'd Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK  

Principal Investigator - Mr Barney Sloane, Historic Buildings & Monuments Commission for  

England (Historic England/English Heritage)  

Summary  

  • Five innovative projects harnessing AI and emerging technologies have been awarded funding to address significant challenges to how the UK’s culture and heritage collections are currently accessed  

  • Towards a National Collection is a major five-year research and development programme that aims to underpin the creation of a unified virtual ‘national collection’, dissolving barriers between the different collections of the UK’s museums, archives, libraries and galleries  

  • TaNC is the biggest investigation in scale and scope to be undertaken to date anywhere in the world - involving 15 UK universities and 63 heritage collections and institutions  

  • Over five years, the research projects will embark on the research and development of emerging technologies, including machine learning and citizen-led archiving, in key thematic areas including maritime history, Britain’s industrial past, contested heritage and community-generated archives  

  • Learnings from these projects will advance technological development across all GLAM sectors as well as collection types, to inform what a UK virtual national collection could look like - setting a world standard for research & technology in culture  

For Further Information on Towards a National Collection  

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