Exploring the Stone Age Culture Beneath the Sea in Doggerland
Human Culture Beneath the North Sea
Up until around 8,000 years ago, a low-lying land mass connected Britain to Europe in the area now occupied by the North Sea. The land is buried deep beneath the ocean today. Tantalizing evidence suggests that a rich culture once existed in the area, which has been named Doggerland.
The University of Bradford is currently involved in a two-year project to explore the remains of Doggerland, which has sometimes been called “Britain’s Atlantis”. Scientists from Belgium and the Netherlands are also involved in the exploration. The investigation might reveal significant information about a culture that is believed to have been an important part of European history.
The North Sea is part of the Atlantic Ocean. It's a large body of water that separates Britain from mainland Europe. It's located north of the narrow English Channel (which is located to the south of England) and south of the Norwegian Sea (which is located to the north of Scotland).
Dogger Bank and Doggerland
Doggerland is named after Dogger Bank, which is a shoal (an accumulation of sediment) rising above the floor of the North Sea. More specifically, the shoal in the North Sea is believed to be a moraine. Moraines are created by rock debris transported by a glacier. Dogger Bank is located within the area once occupied by Doggerland and is in relatively shallow water. It's named after the dogger, a type of seventeenth-century fishing vessel from the Netherlands. Today the bank is known as a good site for fishing.
Around 18,000 years ago, glaciers that had formed during the preceding ice age started to melt and the frozen tundra of Doggerland began to soften as the climate warmed. The warmer temperatures and an increasing quantity of plant and animal life in the area likely attracted humans.
During Doggerland's heyday, the landscape is believed to have consisted of low hills, valleys, plains, and marshland and to have been rich in wildlife. A flourishing Mesolithic culture is thought to have existed there. The Mesolithic period existed between the time of the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age) periods. It's sometimes known as the Middle Stone Age. In Europe, it's said to have existed from around 15,000 to 5,000 years ago.
Cores taken from the ocean floor where Doggerland once existed contain peat deposits. Peat forms only in certain land habitats, such as bogs and moors. Human and animal bones (including those of mammoths) as well as ancient bone and stool tools have also been found in the sea floor. Some of the discoveries have been made by fishermen dragging weighted nets over the bottom of the ocean.
The study of the area is interesting not only because it may tell us about its inhabitants and the lives of ancient people but also because it may give us information about early settlements in the regions bordering Doggerland.
The University of Bradford link in the "References" section below has a map showing the size of Doggerland at different periods of time. It indicates that at one time the United Kingdom was part of mainland Europe. The Holocene Epoch mentioned in the map above began around 11,700 years ago. In earlier times, Doggerland was bigger than shown in the map.
The Fate of Doggerland
The climate in Doggerland continued to warm and sea levels rose as ice melted. The sea engulfed parts of the land. By 8,000 years ago, the area had been reduced to a marshy island (or perhaps islands). Then a major event occurred that likely covered what was still visible in the area. A huge, underwater landslide occurred off the coast of Norway. The event is known as the Storegga slide. The landslide is thought to have generated a tsunami, which covered Doggerland and killed the people who lived there.
Though the landslide is an accepted fact and the idea of the tsunami seems plausible to multiple researchers, there is disagreement about how many people lived in what could still be seen of Doggerland. The land was past its prime. At least one researcher suspects that although people may have visited the remaining islands in boats in order to fish, their communities had probably moved to the mainland of Britain and Europe by that time.
The idea of ancient people travelling to and from an island in a boat is not as unrealistic as it may sound. It has been discovered that some Mesolithic people—and perhaps people from an even earlier culture—built and travelled in boats.
It (Doggerland) would have been a heartland of human occupation and central to the process of re-settlement and colonisation of north Western Europe during the Mesolithic and the Neolithic.— University of Bradford
Europe's Lost Frontiers Project
As the University of Bradford website says, the undersea Doggerland habitat can't be explored conventionally. This has meant that up to now relevant discoveries have been accidental. The Europe's Lost Frontiers project is attempting to use the best of modern technology and the most recent advances in the technology to explore the area. The techniques should be useful in exploring other drowned landscapes in the world.
The researchers have discovered that seismic mapping performed by the petroleum industry and a wind farm project on Dogger Bank can be very useful for mapping the buried land. In some areas, the layout of the ancient land hasn't been destroyed. The land has been submerged in the ocean and covered by sediment, but it still exists. Seismic mapping has shown the existence of river valleys, lakes, coastlines, hills, and other landforms.
The researchers will perform target coring and then analyze the contents of the cores. They will examine and date items such as pollen grains, plant and insect remains, and remains of other creatures. They hope to discover information such as the density of grazing animals and ways in which the people may have altered their landscape.
The scientists say that the cool environment at the bottom of the ocean should be a great environment for preserving ancient DNA. Cores obtained from the area will be analyzed for the presence of the chemical. The chemical will then be sequenced using the latest techniques. DNA sequencing involves an analysis of its structure.
DNA studies can be extremely useful in identifying organisms. It's vital and sometimes difficult to avoid contaminating ancient samples with modern DNA, however. Our cells and the cells of other creatures contain the chemical. This has caused some researchers' claims that a DNA sample comes from the distant past to be doubted. The doubt is not due to dishonesty on the part of the researchers but due to the likelihood of accidental contamination.
The data obtained in the above processes can be used in complex computer modelling programs that simulate real ecological conditions. The scientists in the Europe's Lost Frontiers project will use the latest techniques as well as innovative ones to get the most detailed and accurate models possible.
Technology used by the petroleum industry and in relation to the proposed wind farm on Dogger Bank is proving very useful for scientists exploring Doggerland. At the same time, the fact that various industries find the North Sea attractive is a little worrying. It would be a shame if evidence of the ancient world was destroyed before we found it.
The Brown Bank Sand Ridge
The chance discoveries over the years indicate that the submerged Doggerland contains interesting and important evidence of humans and their lives. As Professor Vincent Gaffney from the University of Bradford has said, however, examining specific places in the North Sea to look for more evidence is a bit like "searching for a needle in a haystack". The researchers don't explore the seabed randomly and go to areas where discoveries related to the presence of humans have been made. There is still luck involved in the investigation, however. The North Sea is a big place.
The scientists are currently focusing on an area known as Brown Bank. The bank is a sand ridge about thirty kilometres in length that is located to the east of Great Yarmouth. Items previously found by fisherman in the area suggest that a prehistoric settlement once existed there. Exploring the region might be fruitful.
In 2019, University of Bradford researchers associated with the Lost Frontiers project investigated the Brown Bank area in a research vessel. They travelled with Belgian scientists in a ship named the RV Belgica. This vessel explores the North Sea and other areas. The Lost Frontiers investigation found evidence of a fossilized forest at the bottom of the ocean. The evidence included the roots of trees, snails that lived on land, and peat. The scientists also found pieces of flint tools.
Lost Frontiers has a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Both accounts are interesting and are frequently updated with reports about the latest activities related to their research. At the moment, the group's focus is on Doggerland, though they also explore other areas.
A Great Source of Information from Amateurs
Scientists interested in Doggerland are being helped by citizen explorers. In 2012, material was dredged from the ocean bottom thirteen kilometres off the coast of the Netherlands. The sediment was then placed on an existing beach. The experimental project was designed to protect the coastal area of the country from a rise in sea level. A happy "side effect" of the experiment is that evidence of a stone age culture has become accessible. The wide and productive area of sand is known as the Zandmotor or the sand engine.
Beachcombers are discovering some very interesting items from Doggerland in the beach sediments and are giving them to scientists. Fragments of human skeletons, tools, and animal remains have been found. Their original location isn't precisely known, which means that scientists are missing some context for the discoveries. Since the material that was dredged came from a limited region, the researchers do know something about the original location of the items, however.
The items that have been discovered come from multiple time periods. Some come from the Mesolithic culture and are associated with so-called "modern" humans, but others come from the Paleolithic and are associated with Neanderthals. One interesting discovery is a Neanderthal flint tool with a knob of tar at the end. The knob probably acted as a handle. Neanderthals knew how to change birch bark into tar.
Neanderthals appear to have explored part of Doggerland while it was icy but accessible in at least some places. Shorter after the Neanderthals disappeared, the area is thought to have become too cold for human habitation. Once the area warmed sufficiently at a later date, modern humans arrived.
A Fascinating Endeavour
Scientists from other institutions besides the University of Bradford are exploring Doggerland. I hope they find more evidence of human existence and discover more about life in the area. The exploration techniques that they are developing may be helpful in other investigations, but it would be wonderful if there were more benefits to the research than this. Learning about our past is a fascinating endeavour.
- Information about Doggerland from Wessex Archaeology
- Prehistoric North Sea 'Atlantis" hit by tsunami from the BBC
- Hunting for DNA in Doggerland from Wired
- Reconstruction of stone age lands lost to North Sea from The Guardian
- Information about the Europe's Lost Frontiers project and the exploration of Doggerland from the University of Bradford
- Documents and press releases from the Lost Frontiers project (When this article was last updated, a January 2020 document about discoveries made as a result of the dredging project in the Netherlands was available on the Lost Frontiers site.)
- Europe's lost frontier (an abstract of the document mentioned above) from the Science magazine
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Linda Crampton