Research Highlight: New Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology Seeks Answers to the End of Civilizations


Teams of marine archaeologists from the University of California San Diego set out this summer on expeditions to uncover secrets of ancient eastern Mediterranean societies.

They brought back to San Diego a trove of evidence: information on previously undiscovered ancient shorelines swallowed by sea-level rise in a Greek bay; sediment cores containing thousands of years of human history; and remnants of a submerged port linked to the Biblical copper trade in Israel. 

Around 3,200 years ago, major empires of the ancient Mediterranean world inexplicably collapsed, said Tom Levy, a distinguished professor of anthropology at UC San Diego and co-director of the Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology (SCMA).
What caused the meltdown of an entire social order and what could it teach our modern world? Possibilities include climate change, pandemics, massive migration, or warfare. The center – a joint effort between Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Department of Anthropology at UC San Diego – is spearheading an underwater search for the answer.

The new cross-discipline research center marries earth and social sciences.

“The oceans are the last great frontier for archaeology on Earth,” Levy said. “Our goal is to study near-shore coastal environments and to see how human and natural systems are embedded together through deep time.”

The center’s summer field school drew on the expertise of three leaders: co-directors Levy and John Hildebrand, an oceanographer at Scripps, and Dick Norris, a Scripps paleobiologist. The trio led students from UC San Diego in collaboration with a team from Israel’s University of Haifa led by Assaf-Yasur Landau, a professor in its Department of Maritime Civilizations. In July, the team studied the small bays – both near shore and underwater,  around Tel Dor, an ancient commercial port on the Israeli coast. Yasur-Landau and Levy led the underwater archaeology excavations in the South Bay at Dor where hundreds of huge stone blocks from the ancient port have been found.



Hildebrand mapped unexcavated remains hidden beneath the beach using ground-penetrating radar. In the bay and on the beach, Norris worked with students and scuba gear to drill 6,000 years worth of sediment cores bearing potential climate and environmental data. The main haul came from coring on the beach where SCMA Israeli postdoctoral researcher Gilad Shtienberg pulled out seven-meter (25-foot)-long sediment cores, which are currently being studied at Scripps’ Deep Sea Drilling Lab.

Pollen, shells, and other biological remnants left behind in sediment cores can help us “piece together a detailed idea” of what the climate was like and how it changed through this period, Norris said.

“That’s why (our) collaboration is so powerful because I don’t know all the historical stuff Tom (Levy) knows, but we bring all sorts of tools to do analysis of the environmental context and that’s really very potent,” said Norris.

Scientific diving gives researchers access to drowned environments and archaeological sites that are important for understanding climate change and sea-level rise, said environmental archaeologist Isabel Rivera-Collazo, who is assisting the center with geological analysis.

“If we want to understand what’s happening now with sea-level rise, we need to look at places in the past that have suffered it,” said Rivera-Collazo, an assistant professor with a dual appointment at Scripps Oceanography and the Department of Anthropology. “Marine archaeology can help us do that.” 

Rivera-Collazo was part of the team at Tel Dor and is doing a sediment study of an ancient half-submerged building at the site in collaboration with Ruth Shahack-Gross, professor and head of the Laboratory for Sedimentary Archaeology at Haifa’s Department of Maritime Civilizations.

The center also serves as a resource for students, both undergraduate and graduate, to fortify their resumes, gain scientific diving skills, and engage in disciplines outside their own.

Anthony Tamberino, an anthropology graduate student working for the center under Levy, has twice visited Tel Dor. He draws upon his experience in the U.S. Air Force—training in avionics, GPS and radar—to develop new cyber-archaeology tools for marine archaeologists.

The technology used in the Air Force is “really useful for finding things” like returning astronauts or crashed airplanes, he said. “Why don’t we use it for archaeology?” Tamberino said.

At UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute, Tamberino is developing a photometry program that stitches high-resolution underwater images together into a three-dimensional rendering of an archaeology site. The goal is to create a virtual reality experience so scientists and the public can explore human history through unseen parts of the world, said Tamberino, without needing to journey to the sites themselves.

Check out Tamberino’s interactive 3D rendering of the biblical port of Tel Dor here.

“You have to spend a lot of money and time scuba training to experience this first-hand,” he said.

Tamberino plans to return to Tel Dor in February with Levy to gather more data.

For Levy, the center’s first field school is meant to showcase the power of cross-discipline research and student work, but also to uncover scientific evidence behind Biblical stories, many of which have been validated by modern scholarship.

“There’s a school of thought out there that there’s no history (behind) the Bible,” Levy said.

Levy studies how the discovery and commercial production of metals influenced the evolution of societies. In the Late Bronze Age, civilizations like the Egyptians, Hittites, Babylonians, and Assyrians traded copper on a massive scale until their mysterious demise.

But the fall of these empires made way for new peoples like the Israelites, Phoenicians, and Philistines. Levy believes uncovering who took over the ancient copper trade in the Mediterranean will reveal whether the Bible’s timeline is accurate.

Mediterranean shipwrecks off the coast of Turkey uncovered a copper cargo dating back to the time of Biblical King Solomon, ruler of the first Israelite kingdom, Levy said. Later, geochemical analysis showed copper from the shipwreck matched copper uncovered in ancient mines east of Tel Dor, evidence of the reemergence of trade and a rebuilding in the once decimated area.

Levy’s discoveries were documented by PBS’ Nova in an hour-long program titled “Quest for Solomon's Mines.

Researchers at the center are not going to be able to provide an answer for why things fell apart, Levy said, “but we will provide scholars, the public, and policymakers with a range of possibilities of how societies respond to stress and disruption.”

Some scholars believe an invasion of so-called “sea peoples” razed whole villages along the Mediterranean coast. Or perhaps it was the decimation of virgin forest for agriculture that caused mass erosion. Some guess it was plate tectonics—earthquakes or volcanoes—that caused the collapse.

If marine archaeology can uncover how environmental change affected a great cultural collapse, the modern implications of that lesson could be vast.

“What would happen if our internet died? So many things are now connected that little instabilities could cause big ripple effects,” Norris said. “By studying these ancient societies that were also fragile, it raises interesting questions about how resilient society actually is to environmental or cultural changes.”

–  MacKenzie Elmer


Related Image Gallery: Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology Seeks Answers to the End of Civilizations


Related Video: Seeking Answers to the End of Civilizations


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