Is Britain’s answer to Atlantis finally ready to give up its watery secrets?

One of the survey ships being used to gather data from the lost underwater world of Doggerland.
One of the survey ships being used to gather data from the lost underwater world of Doggerland.
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It is Britain’s answer to Atlantis and now scientists are one step nearer uncovering the underwater secrets of Doggerland. Sarah Freeman reports

Given the current political climate, Vincent Gaffney admits the title of one of his latest projects now comes with an added helping of irony. Europe’s Lost Frontiers was so named years before anyone had heard of Brexit and its aim is not to chart the crumbling borders of the EU, but a lost world that lays deep beneath the North Sea.

Before the last Ice Age, Britain was connected to North West Europe by a vast area now known as Doggerland. Once brimming with plants, wildlife and humans it has long been submerged, but Professor Gaffney, who is based at Bradford University, is confident that he and a team of global researchers will soon be able to reveal the secrets which lie beneath the waves.

Thanks to a £2.5m Advanced Research Grant from the European Research Council, ships have recently been sent into the zone to drill core samples into the sea bed. Containing vital DNA and pollen data, once analysed, they will allow a 3D picture of the lost watery world to be created.

“Eighty of a planned 100 cores have now been drilled and we have about three quarters of a kilometre of soil just waiting to be looked at,” says Prof Gaffney, whose enthusiasm is infectious. “We spent 10 years mapping the landscape that lies under the North Sea, but this next step will allow us to lay environmental details on top. It will be quite incredible.

“We should be able to pin down the plants which thrived there, the animals which made their home there and finally the human settlers who called Doggerland home.

“We have already identified 20 major estuaries, countless rivers and 300sq kilometre of salt marsh, all in an area bigger than Holland. You have to remember that before the Ice Age that Britain was little more than a range of hills on the edge of Europe. Doggerland by contrast was perfect for hunter gatherer communities and we are now confident that we can shed more light on what this part of the world was like in 10,000BC.”

Doggerland was first identified as a lost landscape more than a century ago, with trawlers occasionally netting archaeological remains, including a woolly mammoth skull, and the author HG Wells also alluded to the area in one of his short stories.

Organised by PLACE, a charity set up to promote Yorkshire’s natural and cultural heritage and making academic research publicly accessible, the latest developments will be officially unveiled at a confrence this weekend in York.

“The only populated lands on earth that have not yet been explored in any depth are those which have been lost underneath the sea,” says Prof Gaffney, who is also part of a project looking at the landscape surrounding Stonehenge.

“Although archaeologists have known for a long time that ancient climatic change and sea level rise must mean that Doggerland holds unique and important information about early human life in Europe, until now we have lacked the tools to investigate this area properly.”

The Lost Frontiers Project still has another three years to run, but even then Prof Gaffney suspects that it will just be the first chapter in a much longer research project.

“It does feel that we are on the brink of something really exciting, but it is just the start. The loss of Doggerland seems all the more pertinent at a time when Britain and the world is faced with present and future climate change, migration and the consequences of immense social change.

“It feels the right time to stop and consider the historic impact of traumatic events of the not-so-distant past and the wider European context of Britain within a world which is changing rapidly and fundamentally.”

For more details about this weekend’s event go to place.uk.com