What we know as the bottom of the North Sea was once a fertile plain occupied by hunter-gatherers – until a mega-tsunami wiped it off the map 8500 years ago

Travel back in time to a paradise lost under the North Sea

Doggerland: wish you were here (Image: Morgan Scheweitzer)

Travel back in time to a paradise lost under the North Sea

From the Victorian pier at Cromer on the east coast of England, the North Sea looks bleak and uninviting. But nip back 10,000 years – the blink of an eye in geological time – and it is a very different sight. At the dawn of the Mesolithic, as the last ice age was coming to an end, sea levels were significantly lower than today and Britain was connected to mainland Europe by a fertile plain stretching as far as Denmark. Welcome to Doggerland, named after the submerged sandbank familiar to anyone who has ever tuned in to the poetic counsel of the UK Shipping Forecast.

Long considered a featureless land bridge, Doggerland has recently been revealed as a prehistoric paradise of marshes, lakes, rivers – and people. In 2008, University of Bradford archaeologist Vincent Gaffney and colleagues used seismic survey data gathered by a Norwegian oil company to reconstruct this lost world beneath the North Sea. The result is a map covering 23,000 square kilometres – an area roughly the size of Wales.

Top of the list for the discerning time-traveller, Gaffney says, is a ride over the Outer Silver Pit Lake, now a depression in the floor of the North Sea. Fed by the river Thames to the east and the Rhine to the west, this is where Doggerland’s people congregate to fish, hunt and gather berries. “This was prime real estate for hunter-gatherers,” says Gaffney. Today, North Sea trawlers occasionally dredge up traces of these people from the seabed – a spear point fashioned from deer bone, for example. But not much else is known about them.

What we do know is that they were victims of climate change. As the world warmed and the glaciers melted, sea levels rose by around 2 metres every century, gradually engulfing low-lying areas. Over a few thousand years, Doggerland transformed into an archipelago.

Then came the wave. Set the time machine to 8150 years ago and you will witness something that few people have ever seen, and fewer still lived to tell the tale: a mega-tsunami. This was triggered by a massive undersea landslide off the coast of modern-day Norway, known as the Storegga Slide.

A 2014 study estimated that roughly 3000 cubic kilometres of sediment collapsed, probably triggered by an earthquake, generating a giant tsunami that surged across what was left of Doggerland. According to John Hill of Imperial College London, who led the research, if you were on Scotland’s east coast – or preferably hovering above it – you’d see it battered by 12-metre-high waves. Some estimates have waves exceeding 25 metres crashing into the Shetland Islands.

Any remaining islands of Doggerland would have been devastated and catastrophically flooded, leading Hill and others to suggest that the Storegga Slide sounded the death knell for its people. But others suspect that they had long ago fled to higher, drier ground – some to the Scandinavian hills, some to France and the Netherlands, and others to the higher ground of what is now the British coast. Either way, the result was a cultural separation of Britain and mainland Europe that would last for centuries.

Read more:A time traveller’s guide to Earth

By Daniel Cossins

Magazine issue 3030 published 18 July 2015

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