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Prehistoric Britain

Lost World under the North Sea

by Sean Coughlan, 23 April 2007. Updated 18 August 2017

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.

In 2007 researchers from the University of Birmingham in England heralded their 'stunning' findings as they mapped the 'best-preserved prehistoric landscape in Europe'. This large plain disappeared below the water around nine thousand years ago.

The Birmingham researchers had 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 humans - stretching from the east coast of Britain up to the Shetland Islands and across to Scandinavia.

'Terrifying'

Professor Vince Gaffney, chair in Landscape Archaeology and Geomatics, suggested that it was like finding a lost land. The inevitable comparison with Atlantis was made. That lost continent 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, according to Professor Gaffney. 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. 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 too, gods of streams and trees, sacred places - it would have been a catastrophic loss. As the temperature rose, and the glaciers retreated, and the water levels also 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 mapped by the Birmingham researchers was wiped out in the space of four thousand years.

British Isles map about 10,500 BC
The rising water levels began to remake the coastline, from what's seen here around 10,500 BC to the much-reduced coastline of today's British Isles


By 2007 the team had examined a twenty-three thousand square metre area of the sea bed - mapping out coastlines, rivers, hills, sandbanks, and salt marshes as they would have appeared about twelve thousand years ago.

And eventually, once the team could establish physical features, it should be possible to narrow the search for sites that could yield more evidence of how these prehistoric people lived. It's clear from other sites that 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, according to Professor Gaffney - and how it can be protected from activities such as pipe-laying and the building of wind farms.

 

 

     
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