Secrets of drowned landscape revealed

A diver at work on a mound at Doggerland.
A diver at work on a mound at Doggerland.

A hidden underwater world with a dramatic past has been revealed by University of St Andrews scientists at a major public science festival.

The story behind Doggerland, a land that was slowly submerged by water between 18,000 and 5500 BC, was unveiled at the annual Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition on Tuesday.

Organised by Dr Richard Bates of the Department of Earth Sciences at St Andrews, the Drowned Landscapes exhibit reveals the human story behind Doggerland - a now submerged area of the North Sea that was once larger than many modern European countries.

Dr Bates, a geophysicist, told the Citizen: “Doggerland was the real heartland of Europe until sea levels rose to give us the UK coastline of today.

‘‘We have speculated for years on the lost land’s existence from bones dredged by fishermen all over the North Sea, but it’s only since working with oil companies in the last few years that we have been able to re-create what this lost land looked like.

COMPLEX

“When the data was first being processed, I thought it unlikely to give us any useful information. However, as more area was covered, it revealed a vast and complex landscape. We have now been able to model its flora and fauna, build up a picture of the ancient people that lived there and begin to understand some of the dramatic events that subsequently changed the land, including the sea rising and a devastating tsunami.”

The research project is a collaboration between St Andrews and the Universities of Aberdeen, Birmingham, Dundee and Wales Trinity St David.

Rediscovering the land through pioneering scientific research, the research reveals a story of a dramatic past that featured massive climate change. The public exhibit brings back to life the Mesolithic populations of Doggerland through artefacts discovered deep within the sea bed.

The research suggests that the populations of these drowned lands could have been tens of thousands, living in an area that stretched from Northern Scotland across to Denmark and down the English Channel as far as the Channel Islands.

The research, a result of a painstaking 15 years of fieldwork around the murky waters of the UK, is one of the highlights of the London event.

The interactive display examines the lost landscape of Doggerland and includes artefacts from various times represented by the exhibit – from pieces of flint used by humans as tools to the animals that also inhabited these lands.

Using a combination of geophysical modelling of data obtained from oil and gas companies and direct evidence from material recovered from the seafloor, the research team was able to build up a reconstruction of the lost land.

The findings suggest a picture of a land with hills and valleys, large swamps and lakes with major rivers dissecting a convoluted coastline. As the sea rose the hills would have become an isolated archipelago of low islands. By examining the fossil record (such as pollen grains, microfauna and macrofauna) the researchers can tell what kind of vegetation grew in Doggerland and what animals roamed there. Using this information, they were able to build up a model of the ‘carrying capacity’ of the land and work out roughly how many humans could have lived there.

The research team is currently investigating more evidence of human behaviour, including possible human burial sites, intriguing standing stones and a mass mammoth grave.

ARTEFACTS

Dr Bates added: “We haven’t found an ‘x marks the spot’ or ‘Joe created this,’ but we have found many artefacts and submerged features that are very difficult to explain by natural causes, such as mounds surrounded by ditches and fossilised tree stumps on the seafloor.

“There is actually very little evidence left because much of it has eroded underwater; it’s like trying to find just part of a needle within a haystack. What we have found, though, is a remarkable amount of evidence and we are now able to pinpoint the best places to find preserved signs of life.”

For further information on the exhibit, visit: http://sse.royalsociety.org/2012/exhibits/drowned-landscapes/

Drowned Landscapes is on display at The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2012 until Sunday, July 8, at the Royal Society in London.