Contourites are widespread throughout the deep sea, ranging from those that build up individually distinct bodies (mounded drifts) to those that occur closely interbedded with other deep-water facies. Although seismic data should not be used to make a firm identification of contourites without supporting evidence, much progress has been made in determining the combination of seismic criteria that best represent contourite deposits. With some modifications and additions, these criteria are in broad agreement with those recently proposed by Faugères and colleagues (1999). The papers in this special issue are mainly drawn from those presented at an IGCP workshop held in Trieste, Italy (October 2000), together with selected additions. Some of the new and important topics covered include: discussion of bottom-current controlled deposits on continental shelves and in large lakes (shallow-water and lacustrine `contourites'); the unique characteristics of high-latitude contourite systems that show interaction with turbidity current, debris flow and glacigenic processes; and the importance of local slope topography, developed as a result of synsedimentary tectonics and downslope mass movement, in focussing and shaping drift deposits (infill and fault-related drifts). An introduction to the powerful use of 3D seismic data in understanding contourite systems points the way towards important future research.