History Files


Prehistoric Britain

Lost World under the North Sea

by Sean Coughlan, Edited from BBC News Education, 23 April 2007



Archaeologists are uncovering a huge prehistoric "lost country" hidden below the North Sea.

This lost landscape, where hunter-gatherer communities once lived on sweeping plains of grass, was swallowed by rising water levels at the end of the last ice age between around 10,500 to 7000 BC.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham in England are heralding their "stunning" findings as they map the "best-preserved prehistoric landscape in Europe".

This large plain disappeared below the water more than 8,000 years ago.

The Birmingham researchers have been using oil exploration technology to build a map of the area that now lies below the North Sea which was once inhabited by tribes of hunter-gatherers - stretching from the east coast of Britain up to the Shetland Islands and across to Scandinavia.


"It's like finding another country," says Professor Vince Gaffney, chair in Landscape Archaeology and Geomatics.

[The lost lands could be compared to another Atlantis, a 'lost continent' which contained a civilisation that was reputed to have been drowned by the rising seas.

The popular period for the loss of Atlantis is 10,500 BC - a period that is precisely comparable to the time at which the waters of the Atlantic were drowning out the North Sea grasslands.]


It also serves as a warning for the scale of impact that climate change can cause, Professor Gaffney says.

Human communities would have lost their homelands as the rising water began to encroach upon the wide, low-lying plains.

"At times this change would have been insidious and slow - but at times, it could have been terrifyingly fast. It would have been very traumatic for these people," he says.

[Some of the advances by the sea would have been similar to the widespread flooding of the English East Coast in 1953.

That happened overnight as a result of strong winds and a particularly high tide, but in the case of the North Sea plains the floodwaters would not have receded - at least not completely, and not permanently.]

"It would be a mistake to think that these people were unsophisticated or without culture... they would have had names for the rivers and hills and spiritual associations - it would have been a catastrophic loss," says Professor Gaffney.

As the temperature rose and glaciers retreated and water levels rose, the inhabitants would have been pushed off their hunting grounds and forced towards higher land - including to what is now modern-day Britain.

[Such changes to their hunting areas, with separate tribal associations being pushed together in ever smaller and more crowded territories would have resulted in conflict between tribes or groupings, and a period of unrest and further disturbance to the lives of these people.]

"In 10,000 BC, hunter-gatherers were living on the land in the middle of the North Sea. By 6000 BC, Britain was an island. The area we have mapped was wiped out in the space of 4,000 years," explains Professor Gaffney.

British Isles map about 10.500 BC
The rising water levels began to remake the coastline

So far, the team has examined a 23,000-sq-km area of the sea bed - mapping out coastlines, rivers, hills, sandbanks and salt marshes as they would have appeared about 12,000 years ago.

And once the physical features have been established, Professor Gaffney says it will be possible to narrow the search for sites that could yield more evidence of how these prehistoric people lived.

These inhabitants would have lived in family groups in huts and hunted animals such as deer and wild boar.

The mapping of this landscape could also raise questions about its preservation, says Professor Gaffney - and how it can be protected from activities such as pipe-laying and the building of wind farms.



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