Aeon Magazine has a wonderful piece on humanity’s fascination with stories of submerged civilisations, and the surprising ‘modern’ discovery that ancient peoples did once walk the plains beneath our seas:
In 1931, a trawler called the Colinda sank its nets into the North Sea, 25 miles off the coast of Norfolk, and dredged up an unlikely artefact — a handworked antler, 21cm long, with a set of barbs running along one side. Archeologists identified it as a prehistoric harpoon and dated it to the Mesolithic age, when sea levels around Britain were more than 100 metres lower than they are today, and the island’s sunken rim, at least according to some, was a fertile plain.
As long ago as the 10th century, astute observers noted that Britain’s coastlines were fringed with trees, visible only at low tide. Traditionally, the ‘drowned forests’ were regarded as evidence of Noah’s flood — relics of an antediluvian world whose destruction is recorded in the most enduring of all the stories of great floods that sweep the earth and drown its people. At the beginning of the 20th century, another explanation was proposed by the geologist Clement Reid. In his book Submerged Forests (1913), Reid argued that ‘nothing but a change in sea level will account’ for the position of trees stretching from the high water mark ‘to the level of the lowest spring tide’. Observations on the east coast of England led him to conclude that the Thames and Humber estuaries were once ‘flanked by a plain, lying some 40-60 feet below the modern marsh surface’.
Turning his attention to a substance known as ‘moorlog’, dredged up from the bed of the North Sea at Dogger Bank, Reid identified nothing less than a time capsule. Moorlog consists of the compacted remains of animal bones, shells, wood, and lumps of peat, and Reid’s sample contained a variety of bones, including bear, wolf, hyena, bison, mammoth, beaver, walrus, elk and deer. He concluded that ‘Noah’s woods’ once stretched far beyond the shore, with Dogger Bank forming the ‘edge of a great alluvial plain, occupying what is now the southern half of the North Sea, and stretching across to Holland and Denmark’.
The Colinda antler appeared to confirm Reid’s theory, for it came from a freshwater deposit, meaning that it had not been dropped by a sea voyager, but by someone living in the landscape. According to Vincent Gaffney, Simon Fitch and David Smith — the trio of archaeologists at the University of Birmingham who have made the most sustained attempts to build on Reid’s research — this was ‘the first real evidence that the North Sea had been part of a great plain inhabited by the last hunter-gatherers in Europe’.
The area, now called Doggerland, was gradually submerged as the last Ice Age came to an end, and the melting glaciers raised sea levels. Only around 5,500 BCE did Britain finally become an island. The rediscovery of the great plain that formerly connected it to mainland Europe is one of the most remarkable scientific stories of the past decade, yet there is a sense in which it should not come as a surprise at all. Doggerland addresses one of our oldest preoccupations; for we have always told stories about lost civilisations, hidden beneath the waves.