Breaking away from Europe has never been straightforward.
Eight thousand years ago, a series of enormous tsunamis swept through the North Sea and struck the coast of what is now Britain, with devastating effects.
The landmass had previously been connected to continental Europe by a huge expanse known as Doggerland, which had allowed early Mesolithic hunter gatherers to migrate northwards, but rising sea levels had already flooded much of the connecting land. So huge was the tsunami event, many scientists believed it had finally swept away Doggerland for good.
Now a new analysis of the seabed and its sediments suggests that some parts of Doggerland survived the waves as a scattered archipelago of islands.
That matters, argue the British and Estonian scientists behind the research, because the land that remained could have been a staging post for the first Neolithic farmers to settle in Britain thousands of years later, and may still carry the archaeological traces of their early settlements, even if they, too, are now under the sea.
The research, the scientists hope, could also feed into planning against similar future events as the North Sea becomes ever more developed.
“If you were standing on the shoreline on that day, 8,200 years ago, there is no doubt it would have been a bad day for you,” said Vincent Gaffney, professor of landscape archaeology at the University of Bradford. “It was a catastrophe. Many people, possibly thousands of people, must have died.”
The cataclysmic event, known as the Storegga slides, hit around 6150BC and were triggered by enormous underwater landslips off the coast of Norway. While their date and cause are well established, the devastation they caused has not been fully understood because much of the evidence is now deep under water.
After 15 years of extensive mapping of the area, the researchers were able to identify former river valleys and lakes across Doggerland, and sink sedimentary cores deep into the seabed. One core, obtained off what is now the north coast of Norfolk at the Wash estuary, contained sedimentary evidence of the flood – the first such evidence from the southern North Sea.
The team’s research showed that in places the tsunamis had swept up to 25 miles (40km) inland along valleys and low-lying areas, but that dense woodlands and hills may have protected other parts of the region. While most of Doggerland was inundated, the archipelago survived for millennia, until it too was swallowed by rising sea levels caused by climate change.
If sedimentary evidence for the period is hard to find, archaeological remains from Doggerland’s early occupiers are even more elusive. However, Gaffney said the people of the area may have been more settled than is often assumed of hunter-gatherer societies.
Such assumptions have inevitably been based on the evidence that has been found on (present day) land, he said, “but this [was] not the optimal area to live in. It’s on the coastlines, on the great plains, where there are so many more resources and where habitation may have been a bit different.”
Rather than being permanently on the move “with lifestyles which are short, brutish and nasty”, he said, the people of Doggerland may have been able to settle semi-permanently in coastal areas that were richer in resources.
Gaffney added: “We can’t see [the evidence for their settlements], because the area is enormous, and it’s covered by tens of metres of sea and marine silt.” By using topographic and seismic data, however, the scientists were able to predict where settlements were most likely to have been located, and potentially where the first farmers later made contact.
“That’s a global first. There is nothing, anywhere in the world, like the amount of work that has happened over the last decade in the North Sea,” said Gaffney.
Plans for large-scale development of the area, particularly in offshore wind farms, offer a “phenomenal opportunity” to find out more, he added. “I’m sure many archaeologists will be working with wind farms to find out about this absolutely unique archaeological resource, just off our coast.”
The research is published in the December issue of the journal Antiquity.