Satellite-derived bathymetry for maritime archaeology: Testing its effectiveness at two ancient harbours in the Eastern Mediterranean

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High-resolution bathymetry is an essential tool in maritime archaeology, often used for underwater prospection, imaging, palaeo-landscape reconstruction and change detection. The commonest acquisition method relies on shipborne acoustic systems (e.g. multibeam echosounder). However, most of the world's seabed has not been surveyed using these methods. Derivation of bathymetry from high-resolution multispectral satellite imagery (Satellite-Derived Bathymetry: SDB) can redress this in shallow (<20–30 m depth) clear water. It can be derived empirically using depth control points, or independent of control data through physics-based approaches. Given global satellite coverage, it is applicable almost anywhere with suitable water conditions and is becoming increasingly widespread in the hydrographic survey community. However, archaeological application of SDB is almost totally un-investigated. This paper examines the utility of SDB for maritime archaeology through 2 case studies: the ancient harbours of Tyre (Lebanon) and Ras Ibn Hani (Syria). Tested data comprise 2 m-resolution physics-based commercial SDB and medium-resolution (10–30 m) SDB empirically derived from open access multispectral imagery (Landsat 8, Sentinel-2). SDB was assessed for its ability to detect submerged cultural features and landforms and as input into palaeo-geographic reconstructions. Tested SDB performed poorly for feature detection, but was better-suited to landform identification and palaeo-geographic reconstruction. SDB also has clear advantages: low cost, wide area coverage, speed and data availability. Disadvantages include variable accuracy, technical limitations (e.g. need for clear water) and approach-specific requirements (e.g. depth control points for empirical and complex modelling for physics-based approaches). For maritime archaeology, its current limitations means that it will not replace acoustics for prospection and imaging but it does have utility for submerged landscape investigation and reconstruction, particularly in areas which now only have no/poor bathymetric data.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103030
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Early online date13 May 2021
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 31 Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Honor Frost Foundation through a Developing the Discipline Grant (Application of enhanced satellite remote sensing techniques to broad-scale maritime cultural heritage research and management in the Eastern Mediterranean).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s)

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Bathymetry
  • Geoarchaeology
  • SDB
  • Satellite imagery
  • Shipwrecks
  • Submerged landscapes


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