Late Quaternary sea-level change and early human societies in the central and eastern Mediterranean Basin: an interdisciplinary review

Jonathan Benjamin, Alessio Rovere, Alessandro Fontana, Alessandro Fontana, Matteo Vacchi, Robyn Helen Inglis, Ehudi Galili, Fabrizio Antonioli, Dorit Sivan, Slobodan Miko, Nikos Mourtzas, Igor Felja, Matthew Gregory Meredith-Williams, Beverley Goodman-Tchernov, Eleni Kolaiti, Marco Anzidei, Willem Roland Gehrels

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This article reviews key data and debates focused on relative sea-level changes since the Last Interglacial (approximately the last 132,000 years) in the Mediterranean Basin, and their implications for past human populations. Geological and geomorphological landscape studies are critical to archaeology. Coastal regions provide a wide range of resources to the populations that inhabit them. Coastal landscapes are increasingly the focus of scholarly discussions from the earliest exploitation of littoral resources and early hominin cognition, to the inundation of the earliest permanently settled fishing villages and eventually, formative centres of urbanisation. In the Mediterranean, these would become hubs of maritime transportation that gave rise to the roots of modern seaborne trade. As such, this article represents an original review of both the geo-scientific and archaeological data that specifically relate to sea-level changes and resulting impacts on both physical and cultural landscapes from the Palaeolithic until the emergence of the Classical periods. Our review highlights that the interdisciplinary links between coastal archaeology, geomorphology and sea-level changes are important to explain environmental impacts on coastal human societies and human migration. We review geological indicators of sea level and outline how archaeological features are commonly used as proxies for measuring past sea levels, both gradual changes and catastrophic events. We argue that coastal archaeologists should, as a part of their analyses, incorporate important sea-level concepts, such as indicative meaning. The interpretation of the indicative meaning of Roman fishtanks, for example, plays a critical role in reconstructions of late Holocene Mediterranean sea levels. We identify avenues for future work, which include the consideration of glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA) in addition to coastal tectonics to explain vertical movements of coastlines, more research on Palaeolithic island colonisation, broadening of Palaeolithic studies to include materials from the entire coastal landscape and not just coastal resources, a focus on rescue of archaeological sites under threat by coastal change, and expansion of underwater archaeological explorations in combination with submarine geomorphology. This article presents a collaborative synthesis of data, some of which have been collected and analysed by the authors, as the MEDFLOOD (MEDiterranean sea-level change and projection for future FLOODing) community, and highlights key sites, data, concepts and ongoing debates.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-57
Number of pages29
JournalQuaternary International
Early online date20 Jul 2017
Publication statusPublished - 25 Aug 2017

Bibliographical note

© 2017 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA. All rights reserved. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy.


  • Holocene
  • Mediterranean Archaeology
  • Pleistocene
  • Sea-level change

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