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Mystery of the European Atlantis - Doggerland - the lost territory

Updated on August 26, 2017
Peter Geekie profile image

A retired pharmaceutical and industrial chemist, author and historian specialising in military events.

Original extent of Doggerland
Original extent of Doggerland
Artist impression of Stone Age settlers of Doggerland
Artist impression of Stone Age settlers of Doggerland
Main rivers that flowed through Doggerland
Main rivers that flowed through Doggerland
Just prior to the primary flooding
Just prior to the primary flooding
Remains of Stone Age forest now uncovered
Remains of Stone Age forest now uncovered
Dredged up woolly mammoth tusks
Dredged up woolly mammoth tusks
Plans to recover huge area of Doggerland in 1930s
Plans to recover huge area of Doggerland in 1930s
Future plans for massive wind farm project
Future plans for massive wind farm project
Picture of land slide
Picture of land slide
Decorated skeletons found
Decorated skeletons found
Possible house foundations
Possible house foundations
Prehistoric spider trapped in a block of tree rosin
Prehistoric spider trapped in a block of tree rosin
Mammoth tooth
Mammoth tooth
Hunting spear heads
Hunting spear heads

If we go back in time thousands of years to an area of what is now the North Sea, a fascinating lost world off the British coast was flooded by rising sea water. The ancient country was called Doggerland, covering 100,000 square miles and was once the home to thousands of stone age settlers while at the same time it created an important land bridge between what was to become the British Isles and Northern Europe.

Since it was first discovered archaeologists at the University of Bradford, the University of St Andrews, Dundee and the University of Birmingham, have started a huge project to study and reconstruct the ancient Mesolithic landscape which has long since become hidden beneath the waves.

By using modern seabed mapping data gathered by various oil/gas energy companies, (including that from the Norwegian oil company Petroleum Geo-Services) the university teams are planning to produce a detailed 3D chart that will show physical evidence of the rivers, lakes, hills and coastlines that once existed throughout Doggerland.

Specialist survey ships took core sediment samples on 1st September 2015 from selected areas of the underwater landscape hoping to extract millions of fragments of DNA from the remains of vegetation and animals which once inhabited the lost world.

“The only current or previously populated lands on earth that have not yet been explored to any degree are those which have been lost underneath the sea,” says Professor Vince Gaffney, Anniversary Chair in Landscape Archaeology at the University of Bradford. “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.”

In one of the pictures that accompany the article, you will find an underwater map showing rivers that would have run through Doggerland.

We know that humans lived in Doggerland from around 10,000 BC until it was flooded at the end of the last ice age around 7,500 years ago. Recently Imperial College research showed that the final island of Doggerland was flooded by a single massive event around 8200 years ago. It seems that a tsunami, with waves up to five metres in height, was triggered by a huge landslide (Storegga) off the coast of Norway. For hundreds of years, trawlermen fishing off the coast of what is now known as Dogger Bank have pulled up archaeological finds, mammoth and even lion bones in their nets.

Hopefully the very cool underwater conditions of the sunken land will have preserved DNA, which will enable them to build up a picture of how society and environment evolved during a period of catastrophic climate change.

“This project is exciting not only because of what it will reveal about Doggerland, but because it gives us a whole new way of approaching the massive areas of land that were populated by humans but which now lie beneath the sea,” added Professor Gaffney. “This project will develop technologies and methodologies that archaeologists around the world can use to explore similar landscapes including those around the Americas and in South East Asia,”

In the accompanying pictures, you will find a map showing the area currently being studied by the University of Bradford

Dr David Smith, University of Birmingham added: “This is the first time that this type of reconstruction has been attempted at this level of detail and scale in any marine environment.

“The opportunity to provide complementary analysis of established and new technologies, including DNA, at such a scale is also likely to provide a step change in our understanding of past environments and our approach to landscape reconstruction.”

Robin Allaby from, the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick said: "The constant environment of the sea floor preserves ancient DNA exceptionally well allowing us to reconstruct palaeoenvironments many thousands of years older than is possible on land at the same latitude. The project promises unprecedented insight into the Mesolithic in North West Europe and will also enable us to continue to push the frontiers of sedaDNA analysis.”

The population gradually contracted as the land mass was flooded until Doggerland became just a medium size island. Dr Jon Hill, Imperial College London speculated that the final tsunami wave could have wiped out the last people to occupy this island and submerged this land mass.

The research was submitted to the journal Ocean Modelling and was presented at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna.

In order to back their research, Dr Hill and his Imperial-based colleagues Gareth Collins, Alexandros Avdis, Stephan Kramer and Matthew Piggott used computer simulations to explore the likely effects of the Norwegian landslide. They were the first ever group to model the Storegga tsunami with Doggerland in place. Previous studies have used only the modern bathymetry (ocean depth) method. As such, this computer simulation gives the most detailed insight yet into the likely impacts of the huge landslip and its associated tsunami wave on this lost landmass and can be used throughout the world. The Storegga land slide involved the collapse of some 3,000-cubic km of sediment and it was estimated that if you took that quantity of sediment and laid it over Scotland, it would cover it to a depth of 8m. Given that the majority of Doggerland was by this time less than 5m in height, it would have experienced widespread flooding.

It is known that during the last Ice Age, sea levels were much lower; at its maximum extent Doggerland connected Britain to mainland Europe and Scandinavia. It was possible for human hunters to walk from what is now northern Germany across to East Anglia.

However, as mentioned, from 20,000 years ago, sea levels began to rise, gradually flooding the vast low lying landscape. By around 10,000 years ago, the area would still have been one of the richest areas for hunting and fishing in Europe. The centre of the island of Doggerland was fed by the River Thames from the west and by the Rhine in the east which created a large freshwater basin, its lagoons, marshes and mudflats being a haven for wildlife.

"In Mesolithic times, this was paradise," explained Bernhard Weninger, from the University of Cologne in Germany. But 2,000 years later, Doggerland had by now become a low-lying, marshy island covering an area about the size of Wales.

In more modern times the nets of North Sea fishing boats have pulled up a wealth of prehistoric bones belonging to the animals that once roamed this prehistoric haven. In addition, the waters have also been rich in a smaller cache of ancient human remains and artefacts from which scientists have been able to obtain radiocarbon dates. They show that none of these relics of Mesolithic habitation on Doggerland occur later than the time of the great tsunami.

"It is therefore plausible that the Storegga slide was indeed the cause of the abandonment of Doggerland in the Mesolithic," the team writes in their Ocean Modelling paper.

Dr Hill told BBC News: "The impact on anyone who was living on Doggerland at the time would have been massive - comparable to the Japanese tsunami of 2011." Other scientists suspect that there were sufficient natural warnings and Doggerland would have already been pretty well vacated by the time of the Storegga slide.

The aftermath separated and destroyed the Mesolithic tribes. There may have been a few people coming with log boats to hunt and fish, but it’s doubtful that it was continuously settled. However, it was so wet by that time that the halcyon days of Doggerland had already gone.

Archaeological records are sparse, and the discovery of two axes from the Neolithic period (after Storegga) found in the North Sea's Brown Banks area were possibly dropped from a boat - accidentally or as a ritual offering - but it is also unclear precisely when Doggerland itself finally succumbed to the waves. The ancient landmass of Doggerland took several thousand years to flood completely.

"Even after major volcanic eruptions, people go back, sometimes because they can't afford not to but also because the resources are still there," said Prof Gaffney, who has authored a book, Europe's Lost World: The Rediscovery of Doggerland. However, eventually in the case of Doggerland there was no land to return to.

The massive tsunami would also have affected Scotland and the eastern coast of England, as well as the whole northern coast of continental Europe. The wave that hit the north-east coast of Scotland is estimated to have been some 14m high, though it is unclear whether this area was inhabited at the time. In Scotland’s favour, however, it is a very mountainous area, unlikely to be severely affected by flooding in the long term.

But waves measuring some 5m in height would have hit all of the eastern coast of England, and there is strong evidence that there was a substantial population of humans in this area 8,000 years ago. Much of this region, as today, would also have been low-lying, suggesting the impact on Mesolithic people who depended substantially on coastal resources such as shellfish, would have been pretty catastrophic here, too.

The North Sea was probably named by the Frisians, whose homeland lies to the South of it (and to the West of the East Sea, a.k.a. Baltic Sea; and to the north of what was once called the Zuiderzee, now the partially drained IJsselmeer). Other names include Mare Frisium (‘Frisian Sea’) and Mare Germanicum (‘German Sea’).

Since the earliest known landslides and earthquakes which have been known to cause tsunamis in the North Sea; one of the earliest known examples was the Storegga Slides (occurring sometime between 8,150 and 6,000 BC), which caused a 20-m high tsunami that mainly affected the coasts of Scotland and the Faeroes. Of the most recent big ones was the one caused by the 1931 Dogger Bank earthquake, flooding part of the British coast. In addition, the intriguingly named Silver Pit Crater, south of Dogger Bank and fed originally by the Shotton River, might have been the result of an ancient asteroidal impact, although it is impossible to put an accurate date on this giant basin called the Outer Silver Pit, which stretches for up to 100 kilometres through Doggerland. Fed by an inlet to the east, the pit would at one time have been a lake. But two sandbanks running almost its full length could only have been formed by fierce currents.

The depth in this area is very variable and the ‘Long Forties’ and ‘Broad Fourteens’ are large areas in the North Sea where it is consistently 40 fathoms (73 m), respectively 14 fathoms (26 m) deep.

The eventual North Sea, for a long while, became home to populations of unusual animals such as flamingos, pelicans, grey whales and the fascinating Great Auk (a northern-hemispheric penguin-like bird, hunted to extinction in the mid-19th century). In addition, woolly mammoths and reindeer would have roamed freely and provided an abundant meat supply.

Having learned from the past, Modern storm barriers are now in place to help prevent repetitions of the disastrous storm floods that caused much destruction and death in the past, such as the Julianenflut (‘Juliana Flood’, 1164), the Grote Mandrenke (‘Great Drowning of Men’, 1362) and the Great Flood of 1953.

The forest first began to form around 8,300 BC but by 5,000 BC the encroaching ocean had covered it up and buried it under sand and peat. Now the sea levels are rising again, the remnants of the forest are becoming visible and being studied by archaeologists.

Over the years The North Sea has further eroded the shore of a Northumberland beach to reveal the remnants of an ancient forest dating back some 7,000 years. Archaeologists believe the preserved tree stumps and felled tree trunks lining a 200-metre stretch of coastline south of Amble would have stretched to Europe before being destroyed by the water mass which formed. Studies of this ancient forest, which was growing at a time when the sea level was much lower and with Britain only recently separated from what is now mainland Denmark, have revealed it would have consisted of primarily alder, oak and hazel trees and juniper bushes and that the water would have been brackish in nature.

The relatively rapid change in the surrounding environment would have gradually forced animals and humans, in the region, to retreat to present day Europe and the UK as the bogs and marshes became flooded, making them impassable and non-productive. The sand dunes were blown back further into the land, burying the existing forest, at which point the sea receded slightly. The sea level is now rising again, cutting back the sand dunes and uncovering the remnants of the forest. In addition to tree stumps, archaeologists say they have uncovered animal footprints, highlighting the diverse wildlife which would have roamed the ancient Doggerland forest.

Investigation of the area by Dr Waddington, has revealed evidence of humans living nearby around 5,000 BC and on the surface of the peat, footprints of adults and children have been found. From the shapes of the footprints we can tell that they would have been wearing a crude style of leather shoes. They have also found animal footprints of red deer, wild boar and brown bears. The research team is currently investigating more evidence of human behaviour, including possible human burial sites, intriguing standing stones (menhirs) and a mass mammoth grave.

However, an even more fascinating discovery is the array of artefacts known from the Baltic Sea region at Tybrind Vig, off the coast of Denmark. Here such stunning discoveries as textile fragments, wooden paddles, well-preserved Mesolithic dwellings – some with intact wall uprights and bark covered floors – have all been recorded on the sea floor, preserved ironically by the waterlogged peat that led to the eventual abandonment of these communities. At Wismar Bay on the German Baltic coast, there is further evidence of how these groups lived on a daily basis – dugout canoes, fragments of paddles, flint tools, fishing harpoons in various states of production and part of an elm bow – all sealed in situ by successive layers of mud and reed peat, clear signs of rising water levels.

More huts, some with sunken floors, together with a dugout canoe, fish traps (together with an amazing haul of some 10 million fish bones proving that their methods were very successful), as well as a number of burial sites – both human and canine – have been identified in the Netherlands, in the Rhine/Meuse delta.

On the Western side of England, a similar stretch of ancient forest was uncovered in 2014 near the village of Borth, Ceredigion, in Mid Wales, after a spate of winter storms washed away the peat preserving the area. Peat is able to preserve trees and even the bodies of animals so well because it is particularly low in oxygen, effectively choking the microbes which break down organic matter, so preserving their organic contents for thousands of years. But in coastal regions where ancient forest has been long preserved in peat, such as in Wales and Northumberland, the rising seas are washing away this layer and exposing remnants from Britain's past.

Going back some 8000 years, freshwater fish was the most frequent contribution to the daily menu of the inhabitants that roamed Doggerland. Dutch archaeologists have discovered this based on isotopic research (atomic weights and isotopic compositions) of prehistoric human bones dredged or fished from the North Sea. The discovery provides important clues regarding the past inhabitation of this now underwater region and the effects of climate change on small-scale societies.

The research, which is published in the December 2016 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science-Reports, is based on isotopic research of 56 human bones from the North Sea, conducted by the university of Groningen and the ‘Doggerland Research Group’, a collective including the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO), the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE), Stichting ‘Stone’ for Stone Age research in the Netherlands and the municipal archaeologists of Rotterdam (BOOR). The results demonstrate that the menu of the ‘Doggerlanders’ over a period of 4000 years, roughly between 9500 and 6000 BC, gradually changed from terrestrial animals and vegetables, to aquatic, or in other words from a regular animal steak to mostly fish. Freshwater fish occurred mostly on the menu as well as associated species such as waterfowl, otter and beaver.

The research is based on the analysis of the stable isotopes, carbon and nitrogen. These are variants of atoms with a distinct basic value. These differ according to the trophic level of the consumer and whether or not they live in an aquatic reservoir and make use of its resources. The raised levels of the bones dating to the Mesolithic (N=33) clearly pointed to a dominant contribution of freshwater food.

At the same time the researchers were able to obtain answers to a trend over time. This was not straightforward since the dates of the Mesolithic bones suffer from the so-called reservoir effect, which is an offset between the levels of C14 in water and the atmosphere. This means that all the bones are up to several hundred years too old. Due to the fact that the bones were dredged from the North Sea and are without a direct archaeological context it was not possible to calibrate this effect, yet their relative age and the fact that they pre-date the inundation of Doggerland makes them all Mesolithic and made it possible to discover a statistically relevant trend from terrestrial to aquatic resources over a period of time. Of course, this does not mean that an occasional deer or boar was eaten, but it was mostly fish that comprised the vast majority of their diet.

The trend that was discovered in the composition of Doggerland is strongly related to the fact that this area was gradually inundated with water following the last Ice Age. Starting in 9500BC and continuing for some 3500 years the sea levels rose by about two metres per century on average (which is about ten times the current rate!). The low-lying North Sea basin gradually flooded. It was often thought that this submerging land and the encroaching coast-line forced people further inland and those that remained change towards a marine diet of fish and shellfish. The isotopic values rather demonstrated a different scenario. Although there are some bones with a marine signal the majority point to the increased consumption of freshwater fish and related shellfish. This indicates that people, rather than abandoning the flooding areas stayed where they were. Instead of moving away from their historic homelands, they changed their ways and traditions and adapted their lifestyle to living in the developing wetlands that arose around them in the delta areas of Meuse, Rhine and Thames. This is actually far from strange as freshwater wetlands rank amongst the richest areas of food sources world-wide.

The recovered bones and flora that were used in this research come from specific areas of the North Sea, which has yielded many prehistoric finds over recent years. The finds are not only from fishing nets, but actually mainly derive from exposed beaches and large infrastructural projects such as the Tweede Maasvlakte (a large harbour extension near Rotterdam) and the Zandmotor (an artificial beach replenishment reservoir). The sand that is used for these projects was dredged several kilometres from the Dutch coast and harbours and contains considerable remains of this previously undiscovered prehistoric submerged landscape. Research using divers at the original sites has proved difficult, in this rather murky water, however, what has been raised and the scientific results from these artefacts indicate the quantity and quality of the data that is available. These are more than individual finds without context, as they actually derive from sites and locations where parts of the prehistoric landscape are likely to be preserved intact. This makes it worthwhile to further investigate and protect these areas from wanton or accidental destruction.

In September 1930s, there existed at least one outlandish plan to reclaim this particular huge area of submerged land from the seas.

Under the title 'North Sea Drainage Project to Increase Area of Europe', a caption reads:

“If the extensive schemes for the drainage of North Sea are carried out according to the plan illustrated above, which was conceived by a group of eminent English scientists, 100,000 square miles will be added to the overcrowded continents of Europe. The reclaimed land will be walled in with enormous dykes, similar to the Netherland dykes, to protect it from the sea, and the various rivers flowing into the North Sea will have their courses diverted to different outlets by means of canals.”

With the unsettled political events in Europe growing more menacing and the fact that Nazi Germany would be left with only one seaport the scheme quietly faded away. Despite the supposed comradeship of the European Union no country or group of countries would now agree to such a physical conjoining of nations for political reasons. So, for that reason alone such a scheme would never come to fruition.

However, on 23rd March 2017 Denmark's Energinet and the German and Dutch arm of TenneT signed up to a scheme to explore ways to build a giant artificial island in the middle of the North Sea. The intention was that this would create a new "hub" for the generation and transmission of renewable energy across northern Europe that could provide up to 100,000 megawatts (MW) to Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK.

Known as the North Sea Wind Power Hub, this project would be located on the Dogger Bank, a large sandbank in a shallow area of sea about 100 km (62 miles) off the east coast of England. Today, the water remains of relatively low depth, which combined with optimal wind conditions and a central location makes it an ideal site for land reclamation, according to TenneT.

The artificial island is expected to be surrounded with up to 7,000 wind turbines, providing green energy for around 80 million Europeans – not only generating and transmitting energy from the North Sea, but simultaneously forming a power link between six countries, thus enabling them to trade electricity. With an area of 6 sq. km, the island would have its own aircraft landing strip and harbour. Staff, components and assembly workshops would be stationed there in purpose built buildings. The exact schedule for construction is currently unknown, and will depend on the result of feasibility studies, but Energinet and TenneT believe the artificial island could be built on Dogger Bank sometime between 2030 and 2050.

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© 2017 Peter Geekie

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    • Peter Geekie profile image
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      Peter Geekie 3 months ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Cynthia

      Oh ! so it was you who kicked all the earth into the North sea and caused the wave. I think there are laws against that you know. Nice to hear from you again.

      kind regards Peter

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 3 months ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      Fascinating information... my Orcadian-Norwegian-Mennonite roots resonated with a great thunderous clap of recognition.

    • Peter Geekie profile image
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      Peter Geekie 3 months ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Mary

      Very few people have heard of Doggerland although they may have heard the term Doggerbank on the shipping weather forecasts. The North Sea is fairly shallow so it leads to reason that the land may have been above water at one time.

      kind regards Peter

    • Peter Geekie profile image
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      Peter Geekie 3 months ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Alan

      Must agree with you, it must be a strange feeling finding the land beneath your feet dissolving into a marshy bog.

      With no historical knowledge to call on the feeling of overwhelming panic must have been terrible.

      kind regards Peter

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 3 months ago from Brazil

      This is fascinating, and the first I've heard of this area, even though I lived in the UK for 20 years.

      Even my husband, a Brit, hadn't heard of the Norwegian slide causing a tsunami.

      I find it interesting that now, construction of the turbines will begin on this forgotten land.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 3 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      It's always the same isn't it, people who come into the world at the cusp of a new era in development. "Time to move on, this world of ours is shrinking", or words to that effect. The bigger beasts (such as that mammoth) would've noticed it first, sinking into the softening earth...

    • Peter Geekie profile image
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      Peter Geekie 3 months ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear Alan

      Thanks for your reply and extra constructive information. It must have been an awe inspiring period, particularly for relatively simple minds.

      kind regards Peter Geekie

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 3 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      I've seen some of this on the 'Coast' programme from when it showed on the BBC and latterly on the Yesterday channel (19).

      What was mentioned in passing was that the Rhine and the Thames flowed towards each other and north across 'Doggerland' to the Atlantic 'ledge' between where Shetland and Orkney lie either side of the North Sea approaches from the Atlantic.

      Something else that cropped up on 'Coast' with Nick Crane was the effect of the shock wave from that Norwegian landslide on an island off Scotland's north-east coast, where rocks were smashed by the force of the wave and the rock floor scooped out. The wave apparently overran much of what is now Scotland and England as far as the Midlands.

      Well presented, Peter.