Brexit 6000 BC: The lost land between Britain and Europe.

While the separation of The British Isles from mainland Europe is usually measured in miles – twenty of them between the chalk siege-walls of Dover and the sandy beaches of Calais –  our island status is currently dictated by the much smaller value of twenty-six metres. That’s the depth of water south of Dogger Bank, in an area known as the Broad Fourteens because on sea charts it appears as swathe of depth markers all at fourteen fathoms. In oceanic terms, this is barely skin deep. 

Beneath the chop and slosh of the North Sea and the port-to-port beelines of ferries and container vessels, there’s a lost land. A part of Europe that is not Britain, or France, nor Netherlands, Belgium, Germany or Demark though it links us all. It’s an area larger than the United Kingdom and it’s known as Doggerland or perhaps more appealingly, 

The changing coastline of Britain and Doggerland. 

Courtesy of Vince Gaffney

That a submerged realm exists beyond our current coastline has been known for centuries, and evidence isn’t hard to find. The Cornish name for the famous rocky islet of St Michael’s Mount near Penzance is Karrek Loos y’n Koos – or ‘the grey church in the woods’. Those woods are still apparent as preserved stumps that emerge during extreme low tides. Other submerged forests are periodically identified by divers around the British coast or emerge on beaches, for example at Ynyslas on Cardigan Bay or Mawbray on the Solway Firth. Since medieval times these phenomena were interpreted as evidence for a Biblical flood, while more recently, no discussion of the ancient human occupation of Britain or our island flora and fauna is complete without a mention of the erstwhile land bridge connecting us with mainland Europe. 

St Michel’s Mount near Marazion, Cornwall is connected 

to the mainland by a causeway at low tide only. 

Picture George Thomas, Flickr.

 This connection has come and gone many times. Sonar evidence from the floor of the English Channel suggest that our peninsula was first separated some 400,000 years ago, when ice covered most of Northern Europe. At the time Britain was connected to the continent by a narrow isthmus of chalk known as the Weald-Artois ridge. North of this rocky umbilicus, in a basin now occupied by the North Sea, lay a gargantuan pro-glacial lake. When the Weald-Artois ridge collapsed, it unleashed a flood of unprecedented magnitude – some estimates put the discharge at 1 million cubic metres per second, or about 100 times that of the Mississippi. This epic event carved the Channel gorge and traces of its unimaginable power are still apparent in the landforms on the sea bed. But the isolation was temporary. More ice ages came and went, and every time the ice advanced, the lower sea levels meant that Britain’s connection to Europe reformed, only to flood again in the melt. 

Deluge and inundation myths are a repeating motif in cultures around the world, not least the legends of Atlantis and the Biblical flood.  Northern Europe has its share. In the Finnish epic Kalevala, a wound in the leg of the god Väinämöinen gushes with blood that floods the entire world. In Wales the lost lands of Cantre’r Gwaelod(The Lowland Hundred) and Llys Helig (Helig’s Court) are reputed to lie beneath Cardigan Bay and the Conwy estuary respectively, from where their bells ring out when danger threatens. Then there’s the fabled Breton city of Ys (or Is), unrivalled in magnificence but inundated in the reign of King Gradlon when his daughter Dahut opened a gate that kept out the sea, bringing a mountain of water on the city. Some versions of the story have it that when Paris floods, Ys will rise again. According to Irish mythology the otherworldly Tír fo Thuinn – ‘Land Under the Wave’, is reached by travelling under water. The mythical kingdom of Lyonesse (or Leoneis), often synonymous with Arthurian legend, is often placed off Cornwall, around the Seven Stones reef, where the Torrey Canyon foundered in 1967. 

Forests submerged by rising seas are a feature

of many coasts. 

While all myths are subject to development and embellishment, it’s far from fanciful to imagine that these stories – different and yet similar – represent a folk memory of actual events. It’s interesting that most of the myths of lost lands under the sea around the British Isles are west coast in origin – the Irish Tír fo Thuinn, the Welsh Cantre’r Gwaelod, the English Lyonesse, when in fact the losses would have been much more apparent on the low-lying east coast. Vince Gaffney suspects this has more to do with subsequent history in which waves of migration (Roman, Viking, Saxon, Norman) dominated the east, severing the storylines, while the Celtic strongholds of the north and west remained wilder and more culturally intact.
The British coasts still have much to tell us about the lands we have lost. Perhaps most spookily, at Goldcliff on the Severn estuary, low tide reveals the stumps of ancient preserved oaks, and weaving among them the 8000 year old preserved footprints of a variety of creatures – wolves, cranes and people. Meanwhile at Bouldnor on the Isle of Wight underwater archaeologists have identified the cut stumps and worked timbers of Mesolithic oaks. The site, of similar vintage to Goldcliff, has yielded not only large timbers, but also the chips and shavings created as they were worked, and, almost unbelievably, a coil of twisted fibres described as Britain’s oldest piece of string. 

The Bronze Age timbers of ‘Seahenge’ now on display at Lynn
Museum in Norfolk. Picture Mark Vauran/Flickr.

And at Holme on the Norfolk coast in the late 1990s, coastal erosion exposed a Bronze Age timber monument dubbed ‘Seahenge’.  The original purpose of the four thousand year of circle remained mysterious, but it provides clear evidence of rising sea levels. The entire structure was excavated for preservation and can now be seen on display at Lynn Museum. On the other side of the North Sea there is further beguiling evidence of what life was like for the Mesolithic inhabitants of the region. A site at Tybrind Vig, Denmark includes submerged dwellings, textiles, canoes and paddles. The excavations for Rotterdam’s megaport revealed more dwellings, fish traps, canoes, and millions of bones, mostly those of fish, but also beaver and otter and the burials of humans and dogs. At Wismar Bay, on what is now the German Baltic coast, the contents of preserved middens indicate that the fish-heavy diets of local people switched from freshwater to marine species between 8000 and 5500 years ago. 
The transition hints at something Jim Leary is keen to emphasise – the adaptability of hunter gathering peoples. ‘In our modern lives, we’re so isolated from the natural world that we tend to regard natural phenomena – be it inclement weather or sea level rise, as something to overcome – a beast to be fought against. But the Mesolithic people were different. They were so constantly engaged with the landscape that they would have seen opportunities as well as disaster.’ Leary suspects the Northsealanders might even have welcomed the sea, as a hunting resource and as a means of travel.  ‘The North Sea would have been a far less daunting barrier to movement than the tumultuous rivers feeding the Channel’ he says, ‘And I can easily imagine a shallow sea dotted with islands and busy with little boats 7000 years ago.’ Certainly there is evidence that Northsealanders were more than au fait with crossing the water. Not only their boats, but also, says Leary, the similarity of artefacts on either side of the water. ‘There’s no real evidence of cultural separation. Regional trends do emerge in the late Mesolithic – for example in the style of flint tools – but the difference within Britain are just as great as those between Britain and Europe.’

Northsealand/Doggerland was dominated by water,
even before sea levels rose. Illustration by
Elaine Jamieson, courtesy of Jim Leary.

The idea of a land bridge gives a misleading impression that the connection was nothing more than a causeway between the two landmasses it connected. But Mesolithic Doggerland was very much more than a corridor. In fact during the most recent late glacial period, evidence points to it being a heartland. Beyond doubt it was populated by modern humans – people who hunted, gathered, fished and raised families. People who built houses and canoes, fashioned tools, made music and created art. People who kept dogs and buried them ceremonially alongside their own dead. Possibly they had even stared to farm. The landscape they knew as home is still there, but exploring it presents an extreme challenge – both technically and imaginatively. As archaeologist Dr Jim Leary of Reading University puts it, ‘It’s a landscape than no-one alive today has walked through; it can’t be seen from the window of a train… It doesn’t have a modern town built over it, and it can’t be easily excavated. No-one can claim that they have come from there… No-one is rooted to it in that way.’

And yet, Doggerland is not unknowable. Since trawlers began exploiting the North Sea, remains and artefacts have come to light hinting at lives once lived below. There have been terrestrial bones – of mammoths and men among others, and man-made artefacts of spine-tingling antiquity. Of these the most famous is the Colinda point. In 1931, the crew of the trawler Colindaout of Lowestoft discovered something unusual when sorting a catch raised about 25 miles off the Norfolk coast. It was immediately recognisable as part of a fishing spear, carved out of antler, and preserved so well inside a lump of peat that its barbed points are still serviceably sharp at 14,000 years old. At the time it was made, used, broken and lost, this part of the North Sea was a freshwater marsh. But finds such as this rely on a healthy dose of serendipity. A more scientific appraisal of what Doggerland was actually like has seemed out of reach until now.

An area of the Doggerland landscape mapped using seismic 
reflection data by Vince Gaffney and colleagues. The project 
is ongoing. 

A partnership of archaeologists, geomorphologists and palaeoecologists led by the University of Bradford’s Professor Vince Gaffney are exploring the more recent iteration of Doggerland in unprecedented detail using seismic reflection surveys and pollen and DNA from core samples to map the region and shed light on its changing ecology. While much of the original topography is buried under 7000 years of accumulated sand, silt and organic detritus, other areas have been scoured to the bedrock. But by reanalysing data gathered by the oil and gas industries it’s possible to penetrate the more recent deposits and visualise the underlying landforms. The new 3D maps indicate that Doggerland once comprised a continuum of mostly low-lying forested plain from East Anglia to the Low Countries and north to Jutland. It was a land dominated by freshwater, veined with dynamic rivers that braided and shifted year on year through beds of sand and gravel. The larger watercourses included the Thames, the Rhine and the Meuse, all tributaries of a much larger river, whose delta occupied a vast swathe of southern Northsealand and emptied via the colossal Dover gorge into an estuary now once again submerged beneath the Channel. Further north, the topography of Doggerland was punctuated by rolling hills, with an extensive highland region around what is now Dogger Bank.

The biological samples show there was plenty of forest. The first trees to appear as the last ice retreated were pioneering juniper and willow, which gave way in time to pine, birch and hazel, then temperate deciduous species such as elm, oak, ash, lime and alder carr. Despite the tree coverage, the dynamic hydrology would have ensured large areas remained relatively open, as extensive marshlands, reed beds, and tidal lagoons. The whole region was studded and scored with lakes and gorges, which today’s fishermen know as ‘deeps’ such as Silver Pit, Sole Pit, Coal Pit, Sand Hole and Well Hole. The largest of the deeps, known as the Outer Silver Pit, was once a lake 100km long and 30km wide. Archaeologist Dr Jim Leary of the University of Reading specialises in reconstructing the way Mesolithic Northsealanders are likely to have engaged with this landscape, and draws parallels with the more accessible site at Star Carr in Yorkshire – once the shore of another large lake. Discoveries at  Star Carr include the postholes of numerous wooden structures and extraordinary evidence of a hunter-gathering lifestyle and a rich cultural life – a carved pendant and a series of skull caps made from the craniums of red deer, with the antler bases still attached. One area of the North Sea bed is especially intriguing to Leary. Known now as the Cross Sands Anomaly, it’s a huge chalk slab, the size of a sports stadium. ‘It’s impossible to imagine it not being a feature of significance to people living around it,’ he says ‘This is Northsealand’s Uluru; its Rock of Gibraltar.’ Leary speculates that caves in the rock might have been sites of great significance and admits that possibility of exploring such sites is an almost irresistibly alluring one – but technologically still a fair way off.

What’s clear is that 10,000 years ago Northsealand was resource rich. Wetlands and estuaries are extraordinarily productive habitats all year round, teeming with fish, crustaceans, molluscs and waterfowl. The terrestrial fauna would have included elk, giant deer, aurochs, boar, red and roe deer. There would have been beavers, otters, wolves, bears, lynx and foxes, cranes, waterfowl, and abundant fish. Then there were the fully marine resources, never far way – more fish, crustaceans and molluscs as well as sea birds and eggs, seals and cetaceans, which were hunted or scavenged when they beached. The water would have been used as a means of transport as well as a place to hunt. There were trees and timber nearby for building and burning, reeds for weaving, flints for making blades. In short, it was a great place to live, except that it was disappearing.
The rate of sea level increase 6,000-10,000 years ago is terrifying by modern standards – up to several metres a century, driven by pulses of glacial melt and the release of vast lakes from behind dwindling ice dams. The loss of low-lying coastal areas would not have happened at a steady rate, but in unpredictable fits and starts, with catastrophic events claiming large swathes of land at a stroke. A particularly devastating rise took place in the late Mesolithic, around 6200BC. A series of gargantuan landslides collapsed a 290km section of the continental shelf off Norway. Known as the Storegga Slides (from the Norwegian word for edge) they remain the largest known events of their kind, dislodging three and a half thousand cubic kilometres of rock. The resulting wave may have surged 20 metres high over the Faroes and Shetland, 12 metres on the Norwegian coast, three to five metres up the firth of Forth. Certainly sandy debris forms a telltale layer in otherwise rather uniform bands of clay across much of northern Britain, 4m above current sea levels.

When it comes to coastal encroachment, it’s not just the extent of the rise, but local topography that matters.  ‘Look at Bangladesh,’ says Vince Gaffney. ‘A rise of 20 cm there, the height of a welly boot, means losing thousands of square kilometres of low-lying land’. Leary draws modern parallels too, and cites a TV interview with a displaced Pacific islander, standing on the site of his father’s childhood home knee deep in seawater, as prompting much of his current fascination with inundated landscapes. Like parts of Tuvalu, Fiji, the Maldives and Bangladesh to name a few today, Northsealand was always going to be vulnerable to inundation, and given the extent of Mesolithic sea level rises, doomed.

Like all hunter gatherers, the people who witnessed the inundation of Doggerland must have known the land intimately, their connection with it far exceeding our own. And they had all the intellectual, emotional and imaginative capacities of modern humans and would have used them to explore the world, share knowledge and pass on their understanding of history, albeit by oral tradition rather than in written form. Thus there is no doubt that the loss of familiar acreages, be it under tides that rose slowly year by year or in catastrophes on the scale of Storegga Slides, would have had enormous cultural implications.

The British Peninsula, c 8000BC
The choice we made on June 23rd 2016 was a big one for many reasons, economic, social, historical and environmental. For the record, mine was – still is – to find a way to make the reality of a united Europe live up to the ideal. But in or out, after the bare-knuckle politics of the past months there is no doubt we are changed. We no choice but to adapt to the new landscape we find ourselves in. It’s a prospect the people of Doggerland might have recognised as their homeland disappeared beneath the waves.

Further reading:
Leary, J. The Remembered Land (2015) Bloomsbury
Gaffney, g. Fitch, S. and Smith, D. Europe’s Lost World: the rediscovery of Doggerland (2009) Council for British Archaeology 

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