Changing coastal landscapes of Sicily. Sea-level change, natural catastrophe and geomorphological modification of the Sicilian coastline: their impact on the visibility of archaeological evidence for human occupation
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Deteriorating climate in the period leading up to the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) 20,000 years ago caused global sea levels to fall to a lowstand of 125m below modern levels. This resulted in the recession of the Sicilian palaeoshoreline by up to 150km and the emergence of vast tracts of coastal lowland. Following climate amelioration and deglaciation, rising sea levels inundated these formerly exposed areas. The earliest indication of a modern human presence on Sicily comes from Fontana Nuova, in the southeast of the island. The timing of this occupation, on the basis of cross-dating of Aurignacian lithic typology, is about 37,000 BP – a time when sea levels around the Sicilian coastline were some 40-80m lower than at present. The oldest scientifically-dated human remains come from Addaura Caprara, dated to 15,643–15,177 cal BP. Some archaeologists interpret the evidence as suggesting a brief, solitary visit to the island at around 37,000 BP followed by a gap of some 20,000 years before the establishment of a permanent presence during the 16th millennium BP. Others dismiss the veracity of the evidence from Fontana Nuova and hold that Sicily was never settled until some considerable time after the LGM. Until late 20th-century studies demonstrated the attractions of coastal ecotones, absence of evidence was sometimes interpreted as a rejection of coastal landscapes by Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. My thesis will argue that Sicily was not uninhabited for 20,000 years or more but that any evidence for human coastal presence throughout prehistory is potentially submerged. I consider the attractions of coastlands for early modern humans. I discuss the physical background to glaciation and deglaciation resulting in sea-level change. By combining data on absolute sea-level change with evidence for terrestrial displacement resulting from tectonic forces, I have determined relative sea-level change affecting the coastlines of Sicily from 37,000 BP until the Iron Age (ending c750 BC). The results have been combined with digital bathymetric data within an ESRI ArcMap GIS program to produce a series of maps at archaeologically-significant dates. The very areas that are now recognised as being attractive to modern humans will be shown to be submerged today. With reference to modern scientific techniques and their application by specialists in a variety of locations, I shall demonstrate that the successful recovery of submerged archaeological evidence is achievable. I shall also consider a number of phenomena revealed by my field observations that have conspired to conceal or destroy the coastal archaeological record, the absence of such evidence being used illegitimately to support claims for an unpopulated island. These phenomena include natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and related tsunamis, volcanic activity and landslides. Additionally, coastline modification resulting from river estuary migration, and anthropogenic impacts will be considered.