Since fisherman began beam trawling in the North Sea they have been bringing up preserved bones and artefacts from a sunken world that is now covered by water. Archaelogists have named this ancient landscape Doggerland after the Dogger Bank, a glacial moraine deposited during the Pleistocene that would have formed a highland in the low-lying plain that now lies submerged.
The existence of a land bridge between Britain and the Continent has long been known but the recent work by Vince Gaffney, Simon Fitch, and the late Ken Thomson has revealed in detail a hitherto unknown Mesolithic landscape. Using seismic survey data which outline sediment layers below the sea bed the team from the University of Birmingham have mapped 23,000 square kilometres of Doggerland, or, to put it into Britain’s preferred measurement for spatial context, an area the size of Wales.
10,000 years ago Britain was not an island but a remote corner of north-west Europe connected to the modern continent by a low lying landscape of wooded valleys, gently rolling hills, marshes, and lagoons. The Thames and Rhine rivers formed a confluence that fed into the Channel River, and Mesolithic man would have been able to walk from modern day East Anglia to Denmark and the Netherlands. By Mesolithic standards Doggerland, teeming with wildlife and rich in marine and freshwater resources, was a paradise.
The map provides context to the marine archaeological discoveries found to date by allowing observers to position finds within the ancient landscape. Jan Glimmerveen, an amateur Dutch archaeologist, has collected some one hundred Mesolithic artefacts, some of which have been dated to c. 10,000 and 8,100 years old. All Jan’s finds come from a small area known in Dutch as De Stekels. Marine archaeology consistently demonstrates that there is little movement of artefacts from their original resting place and the inference is that De Stekels were the site of a Mesolithic settlement.
Other evidence from Howick, Northumberland, and Brittany suggest that contrary to the consensus that sedentism is a feature of the later Neolithic, reflecting the transition to a settled agricultural lifestyle, the earlier Mesolithic people may also have staked out their territory. It is possible that, in the areas surrounding the North Sea, the rising waters and the flooding of Doggerland led directly to the development of sedentism and territoriality as displaced and pressured communities sought to control increasingly precious resources.
In the longer term the flooding of Doggerland has had important consequences for the development of European history, especially that of northwest Europe. Counterfactual history has its flaws and attempting to interpret the what-ifs of a Europe in which Britain was part of the continent arguably falls into the realm of E. H. Carr’s parlour games, not least because the point of departure lies well before recorded history. The potential for alternative paths becomes almost limitless as a result.
That said the North Sea has had a strong influence on European history due to its long coastline and the navigable rivers that empty into it and that allow for relatively easy access into the interior of the continent. The sea itself has been, and remains, a highway for both commerce and conquest. Were Doggerland to still exist the history as well as the physical landscape of Europe would likely be very different.
As part of the mainland Britain, in any meaningful sense, would be unlikely to exist and the history of its peoples would be one where their place in Europe would be either as part of another greater polity or one where their territorial ambitions were focused on Europe and expansion to the south and east. Unimpeded by the English Channel or the North Sea Roman Imperial expansion may have happened more quickly while the history of the Roman Republic may have ended differently if Julius Caesar had been occupied in conquering the lands beyond Gaul in 49 BC. With land in which to expand to the west and the south would the Norse and Danes have posed the same threat to early Medieval Europe? Would a ‘France’ and a ‘Germany’ be the dominant powers in Western and Central Europe, or would a northern power have achieved control over those lands? Might a third expansionist continental power centred on Britain and Doggerland have led to the further expansion westwards of the Slavic peoples as those in the west fought amongst each other for control?
Such questions remain ‘what if’s’ and can never be satisfactorily answered, but one example from historical times demonstrates the point that history would be different if not for flooding. On December 14, 1287, storms over the North Sea generated waves that forced the collapse of a dyke. The resulting flood killed an estimated 50,000-80,000 people, permanently flooded land which now lies in the Waddenzee and Ijselmeer, and created the Zuiderzee. The storm also had the effect of creating direct sea access for Amsterdam thereby allowing its development as a major port city.
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