Plymouth Archaeology Society

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6th October 2008

Prof. Vincent Gaffney

Professor Gaffney opened our eyes to a lost landscape under the North Sea.He started by recounting the speculations of earlier workers based on tantalising clues.  In 1913, C. Reid, in his book Submerged Forests, suggested the presence of formerly habitable land, based on the submerged peat and tree stumps observed at very low tides at various places around the coastline of the North Sea.  In 1931, a chunk of peat dredged up by a trawler in the southern North Sea contained a piece of worked antler - a harpoon point; the peat contained pollen, indicating mixed woodland.  In 1936, Graham Clarke published Mesolithic Europe, a synthesis of the accumulating archaeological and environmental evidence from around the North Sea basin.  He suggested the submerged land had been a central part of the hunter-gatherer Mesolithic culture, while Britain was still joined to the continent (c. 9000 - 6400 BC).  More recently, Bryony Coles, in a thought-provoking article, “Doggerland: a Speculative Survey” (Proc. Prehist. Soc. 64, 1998, 45-81), using the results of recent geological and Quaternary studies on ice retreat and changing sea levels, provided speculative reconstructions of the topography, river systems, coastline, vegetation and fauna of what she called ‘Doggerland’.  But the Mesolithic land surface has been scoured and has had sediment deposited on it by tides and currents, and, of course the details of the landscape remain invisible under 50m or more of water.

However, the work of Professor Gaffney and his co-workers at the HP Visual and Spatial Technology Centre of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Birmingham have changed all that!  In recent decades, the southern North Sea has been heavily exploited for oil, gas and aggregates and consequently, the seabed and underlying strata has been mapped in great detail by marine geophysicists.  Remarkably, Petroleum Geo-Services have donated more than 22,000 square kilometres of marine seismic data, collected and analysed at the cost of millions of pounds, to the archaeologists at Birmingham.  The seismic data allows one to see through recent sediments to the underlying geology.  Using sophisticated computer software, the Birmingham group have been able to reconstruct the original Holocene (c. 8000 - 6400 BC) land surface representing Mesolithic Doggerland.  There is even the prospect of mapping the land surfaces, such as that inhabited by Late Palaeolithic hunters of c. 20,000 BC.  “Tunnel valleys” have been detected under later overlying sediments, which are interpreted as drainage channels under the ice-sheet of the last Glacial Maximum (c. 18,000 BC).

It has been possible to identify rivers with tributaries, wet-land areas and low undulating hills on the Mesolithic land surface.  Funding from the Marine Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund has enabled the team to expand the project and to develop Virtual Reality computer models, which show the landscape in 3D and perspective views.  Using pollen information from the few cores available it has been possible to clothe the landscape with the probable contemporary vegetation. The visual presentation of the Holocene landscape was very impressive.

Professor Gaffney emphasized that this was just the start.  There is a lot more seismic data to analyse.  More cores with pollen are required to allow modelling of the changing landscape from tundra to grassland to forest, in the hope of predicting likely areas of Mesolithic settlement. Focused sea-bed investigations may produce hard evidence to verify the computer models.  

Bob Bruce


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