Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Discovering Drowned Doggerland, A European Atlantis

A map of the UK with Doggerland, now sunken,  marked as red.

Credit:  University of St. Andrews

A hidden underwater world with a dramatic past will be revealed by University of St Andrews scientists this week (3-8 July 2012) at a major public science festival.

The story behind Doggerland, a land that was slowly submerged by water between 18000 BC and 5500 BC, will be unveiled at the annual Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition opening tomorrow (Tuesday 3 July 2012).

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, commented, “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.

“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.”

Richard Bates at work.

Credit:  University of St. Andrews

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 fossilised remains of a mammoth uncovered from the area.
Credit:  University of St. Andrews

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

Dr Bates continued, “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.”

The only lands on Earth that have not been extensively explored are those that have been lost to the oceans. After the end of the last Ice Age extensive landscapes that had once been home to thousands of people were inundated by the sea. Although scientists predicted their existence for many years, exploration has only recently become a reality.

A virtual visualisation of an Agent Based model of life in the Mesolithic on the Doggerbank.
 Credit: Dr. Eugene Ch'ng, University of Birmingham

This exhibit explores those drowned landscapes around the UK and shows how they are being rediscovered through pioneering scientific research. It reveals their human story through the artefacts left by the people - a story of a dramatic past that featured lost lands, devastating tsunamis and massive climate change. These were the challenges that our ancestors met and that we face once more today.

How it works

Current climate change and associated sea level rise are at the forefront of social and scientific discussion, but research shows that dramatic changes in the environment have occurred numerous times in the past.

One of the most significant landscapes lost to sea level rise is the European world of Doggerland. Occupying much of the North Sea basin, this inundated landscape, bigger than many modern European countries, was slowly submerged between 18,000 BC and 5,500 BC. Archaeologists now consider Doggerland to have been the heartland of human occupation within Northern Europe at that time, but understanding it depends on being able to locate and visualise the landscape.

Scientists have taken a new approach to this by coupling geophysical survey techniques developed by the oil industry with 3D visualisation technologies developed by the computer modelling industry. These innovative methodologies allow the recreation of these once inhabited landscapes, mapping rivers, lakes, hills, coastlines and estuaries, and the modelling of the flora and fauna associated with them. These models bring back to life the homeland of these Mesolithic populations, tantalisingly hinted at by artefacts recovered from the seabed. They also allow scientists to explore the effects of sea level rise upon the landscape and its populations in new and more immersive ways that may help the past provide solutions for the present.

Contacts and sources: 
University of St. Andrews

Further information on the exhibit.

Drowned Landscapes is on display at The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2012 from 3 - 8 July at the Royal Society in London.

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