Marine experts have meticulously mapped an underwater area known as the ‘lost frontier’ between the UK and Netherlands, using acoustic technologies to unravel its topography.
It has long been believed that this landscape, consumed centuries ago by rising tides, could once have been richly soiled great plains and home to prehistoric settlements.
Now finally, after 15 years of research, an expedition is to be launched in the southern North Sea in search of its lost treasures.
“It’s hugely exciting,” said Professor Vincent Gaffney, from the University of Bradford’s School of Archeological and Forensic Sciences. “If this is successful, it will be the first time anybody will have produced such evidence for settlements in the deep waters of the North Sea.
“This will be a real first. That would be new knowledge of what is really a lost continent.”
Until sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, an area of land connected Great Britain to Scandinavia and the continent.
The Lost Frontiers team, in previous research funded by the European Research Council, mapped a huge space in an
area known as Doggerland, equivalent to a country the size of Holland.
They can tell where river valleys would have been, marshlands, hills and even suggestions of great white cliffs, but have until now been unable to prove evidence of human activity.
Prof Gaffney’s interest is centred on a time between 11,000BC and 5,000BC, the middle Stone Age, in what he describes as ‘the last great period of hunter gatherer’.
“Vast areas of the North Sea were dry land, and inhabited,” he said. “Then sea levels rose, and pretty much everything about the world changed in this period.
“The most pleasant places to live would have been in the great planes, which are now out at sea. This is where they would have wanted to be – not in the hills. But it’s all been lost.”
There is evidence, in archeological finds trawled by fishermen over the past century, which suggests a sand ridge east of Great Yarmouth, known as the Brown Bank, could have homed a submerged settlement.
Expeditions last year, using seismic technology, trialled sediment tests and best access, finding prehistoric land surfaces that date from the Mesolithic period.
Now the team of scientists from Bradford are to join Belgian experts aboard research vessel RV Belgica for an 11-day expedition within the Brown Bank area of the southern North Sea.
“We can’t walk those fields looking for pottery or stone fragments, we can’t dig,” said Prof Gaffney. “We’re going to drop ‘grabs’ or do very small-scale dredges, to see if we can find these stones or tools, to give us a clue as to what is there.
“We are talking about an area that is the size of a modern European country. And we know almost nothing about it.
“If it works, it’s a major achievement. We’ve been preparing for this for a long time, and we are now on the edge of achieving it.
“This is the first real chance we’ve had. We don’t know if we will succeed. But even if we don’t now, we will the time after that.
“We are so close – we just need a tiny bit of luck to get to the right spot.”
Scientists from the University of Bradford are to join the expedition with a team from Belgium, led by Dr Tine Missiaen from the Flanders Marine Institute.
A wider team, based mainly in Yorkshire, are working behind the scenes on DNA, research and analysis for the project.
“It’s a needle in a haystack – when you’re dropping a one metre bucket into a landscape the size of Holland,” said Prof Gaffney. “We’re going to need an awful lot of luck, but we’ve made some of our own in the work that’s gone into mapping this. It’s just a matter of time.”