Searching for Doggerland
Was an area of land, now lying beneath the southern North Sea, that connected Great Britain to mainland Europe during and after the last Ice Age. It was then gradually flooded by rising sea levels around 6,500 or 6,200 BC. Geological surveys have suggested that it stretched from Britain’s east coast to the Netherlands and the western coasts of Germany and the Danish peninsula of Jutland.
Art by Alexander Maleev
When signs of a lost world at the bottom of the North Sea first began to appear, no one wanted to believe them. The evidence started to surface a century and a half ago, when fishermen along the Dutch coast widely adopted a technique called beam trawling. They dragged weighted nets across the seafloor and hoisted them up full of sole, plaice, and other bottom fish. But sometimes an enormous tusk would spill out and clatter onto the deck, or the remains of an aurochs, woolly rhino, or other extinct beast. The fishermen were disturbed by these hints that things were not always as they are. What they could not explain, they threw back into the sea.
The story of that vanished land begins with the waning of the ice. Eighteen thousand years ago, the seas around northern Europe were some 400 feet lower than today. Britain was not an island but the uninhabited northwest corner of Europe, and between it and the rest of the continent stretched frozen tundra. As the world warmed and the ice receded, deer, aurochs, and wild boar headed northward and westward. The hunters followed. Coming off the uplands of what is now continental Europe, they found themselves in a vast, low-lying plain.
Map showing hypothetical extent of Doggerland (c. 8,000 BC), which provided a land bridge between Great Britain and continental Europe
Archaeologists call that vanished plain Doggerland, after the North Sea sandbank and occasional shipping hazard Dogger Bank. Once thought of as a largely uninhabited land bridge between modern-day continental Europe and Britain—a place on the way to somewhere else—Doggerland is now believed to have been settled by Mesolithic people, probably in large numbers, until they were forced out of it thousands of years later by the relentlessly rising sea. A period of climatic and social upheaval ensued until, by the end of the Mesolithic, Europe had lost a substantial portion of its landmass and looked much as it does today.
Many have come to see Doggerland as the key to understanding the Mesolithic in northern Europe, and the Mesolithic, in turn, as a period that holds lessons for us—living as we are through another period of climate change. Thanks to a team of landscape archaeologists at the University of Birmingham led by Vince Gaffney, we now have a good idea of what this lost country looked like. Based on seismic survey data gathered mostly by oil companies prospecting under the North Sea, Gaffney and his colleagues have digitally reconstructed nearly 18,000 square miles of the submerged landscape—an area larger than the Netherlands.
The red line marks Dogger Bank, which is most likely a moraine formed in the Pleistocene
Some 8,200 years ago, after millennia of incrementally rising seas, a massive release of meltwater from a giant glacial lake in North America, called Lake Agassiz, caused sea levels to jump by more than two feet. By slowing the circulation of warm water in the North Atlantic, this influx of frigid water triggered a sudden plunge in temperature, causing Doggerland’s coasts—if any remained—to be battered by frigid winds. If that were not enough, around the same time, a landslide on the seafloor off the coast of Norway, called the Storegga slide, triggered a tsunami that flooded the coastlines of northern Europe.
Was the Storegga tsunami the coup de grâce, or had Doggerland already disappeared beneath the sea? Scientists can’t yet be sure. But they do know that sea-level rise slowed down after that. Then, around 6,000 years ago, a new people from the south arrived on the thickly forested shores of the British Isles. They came in boats, with sheep, cattle, and cereals. Today the living descendants of these early Neolithic farmers, equipped with vastly more sophisticated technology than their Mesolithic counterparts, once again look to a future contending with a rising sea.
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