For almost 9,000 years Doggerland has lain at the bottom of the ocean, its secrets buried beneath the waves of the North Sea. Now, divers are beginning to investigate this forgotten land – and what they find could shed new light on how our ancestors first lived in Europe and the British Isles.
Today, we are familiar with the idea of vast empires that once flourished, only to be lost forever to the deep. From the legendary land of Lyonesse, thought to have once existed off the coast of Cornwall, U.K., to the famous island of Atlantis, many stories have been told about the power of the sea to wipe entire kingdoms off the map.
But not all of these places exist in the world of legend and myth. In fact, some 9,000 years ago, a very real land stretched across a vast expanse of what is now the North Sea. Connecting the modern regions of continental Europe and Great Britain, the area known as Doggerland covered around 100,000 square miles and spread from Denmark to Scotland.
However, at the end of the last Ice Age, sea levels rose and the land, no longer weighed down by vast amounts of frozen water, found itself under water. By 6500 B.C. the entire region had been lost beneath the waves – leaving what is now Great Britain as an isolated island cut off from mainland Europe.
The idea of a lost land mass that had once connected these two regions was first popularized towards the end of the 19th century. In fact, the famous sci-fi writer H.G. Wells referred to it in A Story of the Stone Age, in which he talks of being able to walk from England to France without encountering the sea.
However, it wasn’t until 1913 that the first physical relics of this lost land were discovered. That year, researchers began recovering Neolithic flints, animal remains and plants from the Dogger Bank, a sandbar in the North Sea some 60 miles off the English coast. And from that point on, experts began to take an interest in the region.
In 1931, a trawler fishing off the coast of Norfolk, England, retrieved what appeared to be a harpoon carved from a deer’s antler. The tool was embedded in peat from the depths of the North Sea and measured eight inches in length. Moreover, it was thought to date from between 4000 and 10000 B.C. – a time when the region was above sea level.
For 60 years, this mysterious land mass remained little more than a footnote in the annals of archaeology. Then, in the 1990s, the British prehistoric archaeologist Bryony Coles almost single-handedly reignited interest in the region. Naming it Doggerland after the Dogger Bank, she started to draw up maps of how the area might have looked.
At the time, Coles had little to go on. Instead, she was forced to use the current profile of the North Sea’s bed to surmise how Doggerland’s terrain would have looked. But in the years since, researchers from a number of different institutions have been adding to our understanding of the lost land – and what they’ve discovered could rewrite European history.
The first major research project focusing on Doggerland began in 2003, when a team of researchers from the University of Birmingham in England collaborated with the oil exploration company Petroleum Geo-Services. Using seismic data, they were able to more accurately map out what the landscape might have looked like in the Early Holocene period.
In 2009 the results of the investigation – known as the North Sea Palaeolandscapes Project – were set out in a book called Europe’s Lost World: The Rediscovery of Doggerland. Selling out its entire print run soon after release, this publication helped to propel the sunken land even further into the public eye.
Then, in 2012, an exhibition was held at London’s Royal Society, displaying the results of a recent Doggerland study. Together, researchers from the universities of St. Andrews, Aberdeen, Dundee and Birmingham worked alongside divers from oil companies to retrieve and study relics from this submerged world.
Amazingly, they were able to build up a surprisingly detailed picture of what life might have been like in Doggerland during the Neolithic. Apparently, the region could once have been home to tens of thousands of people and may have formed part of what researchers have called Europe’s “heartland.”
“We have speculated for years on the lost land’s existence from bones dredged by fishermen all over the North Sea,” Dr. Richard Bates from St. Andrew’s University told the BBC in 2012, “but it’s only since working with oil companies in the last few years that we have been able to recreate what this lost land looked like.”
Among the discoveries made during the study were flints once used by ancient man, tree stumps many thousands of years old and even a mammoth fossil. Moreover, researchers were able to use the oil companies’ geophysical data to further develop the physical map of Doggerland, adding hills, swamps, valleys and rivers to its topography.
But how did they know how many people had once lived in Doggerland? Interestingly, the researchers used the fossil record of various fauna discovered at the site to establish what the vegetation would have been like back when the region was above water. From this they could also deduce what species of animals were likely to have been present. And taken as a whole, they were able to determine just how many humans the land was likely to have supported.
Then, in October 2015, the University of Bradford launched the “Europe’s Lost Frontiers” research program, an attempt to delve even further into Doggerland’s hidden past. Working in collaboration with researchers from the universities of Lampeter, Birmingham, St. Andrews, Warwick and Bradford, the ongoing project aims to reveal how the inhabitants of the region once lived.
“Although archaeologists have known for a long time that ancient climatic change and sea level rise must mean that Doggerland holds unique and important information about early human life in Europe, until now we have lacked the tools to investigate this area properly,” Professor Vince Gaffney explained in a 2015 statement from the University of Bradford.
Aided by a substantial grant of $2.5 million, the project hopes to establish whether or not ancient humans were cultivating crops during their time at Doggerland. If they were, it would prove that Doggerland’s inhabitants were far more advanced than was previously thought. Additionally, researchers planned to use high-tech equipment to further develop their understanding of the region’s geography.
If evidence of agriculture is discovered at Doggerland, it will transform our sense of how the practice spread throughout the ancient world. Moreover, the research is expected to shed some light on how early humans adapted to the devastating effects of climate change. And with sea levels set to rise during our own times, it can only be hoped that there are vital lessons waiting to be learned.