London, September 10 : Archaeologists are creating a permanent digital record of shipwrecks around European coasts, in the form of a 'virtual submarine' that would allow researchers to explore the wrecks from the comfort of their own desks.
According to a report in The Guardian, by recording the precise 3D arrangement of timbers and cargo from the wrecks, the researchers aim to preserve the information they contain about past civilizations even if the wrecks are damaged or destroyed.
Scientists and members of the general public would in future be able to float over the wrecks in a virtual submarine from the comfort of their own desks.
For researchers, this would allow them to explore the wreck and make decisions about future excavations without spending large amounts of money going out to sea.
So far, the 2.2 million euros Venus (Virtual Exploration of Underwater Sites) project, which involves 11 different institutions across Europe, has created a digital representation of two shipwrecks.
While one is a Roman ship dating from around AD200 off the island of Pianosa near the Tuscan coast, the other is the Barco da Telha, a pre-18th century vessel that sank off the Portuguese coast near Sessimbra.
There are already plans to begin mapping another Roman wreck off Marseilles.
According to Dr Paul Chapman, a computer scientist at the University of Hull, the project was aimed at creating a permanent record of the wrecks.
"Because of activities like trawling, these archaeological sites get destroyed," he said. "What we have been focusing on with the Venus project is how to generate a permanent database or record of these sites," he added.
Underwater archaeological sites have also been damaged by divers taking souvenirs.
"Our job has been to develop a virtual reality diving simulator that allows the user to dive down and experience the site first hand," Chapman said.
One advantage of the simulator is that researchers can add in elements that are no longer there, for example even if the wooden frame of the ship is partially or completely destroyed it can be superimposed on the remains of the cargo that are still there.
"We can also animate the disintegration of the wreck over time," said Chapman.
Two underwater archaeological sites have been identified around the island by the simulator.
Pianosa 1, the site the Venus team has mapped is at 36 metres depth. The ship's cargo is a collection of amphorae - double handled ceramic vases - in a variety of different styles.
Within two to three months, the simulator will also be available for download from the project's website and will run on a standard PC.