Friday , March 1 2024
A lost Mesolithic world at the centre of north-west Europe is explored.

Book Review: Europe’s Lost World: The Rediscovery of Doggerland by V. Gaffney, S. Fitch and D. Smith

Most cultures around the world have a Noah's ark-style story – of a great inundation that consumes the whole planet. One rare exception is the eastern parts of the British Isles. Which is odd, because the archaeologists have recently established that just off the east coast of England there was a great lost land, an area greater than the existing UK, you might even call it a culture, which disappeared completely beneath the waves only around 6,000 years before today. One explanation for this loss might be that the repeated invasions of the east coast in the historical period disrupted regional myth cycles, in contrast to the continuity of Celtic cultures of the west coast.

But one effect of this historical disruption is clear: it makes Europe's Lost World: The Rediscovery of Doggerland particularly fascinating and gripping – slightly odd really, when you consider that this has the dry-sounding subtitle of "Research Report No 160 Council of British Archaeology".

You'd have, however, to be a very dry sort indeed, not to be captured by the tale of the gradual unfolding of knowledge of an entire lost world in Europe – a world that the geological surveys of oil companies and pipe-laying firms has enabled the experts to map, and the archaeologists to reconstruct. Some of the seismic data is a bit on the technical side; some of the images (and the council deserves credit for producing such a finely and voluminously illustrated as well as accessible monograph) are only for the expert to really judge, but they do bring alive this story of a lost – and possibly one day recoverable – culture.

The name Doggerland comes from the Dogger Bank, a relatively shallow area in the North Sea from which fishermen have for decades been dredging artefacts – including some finely carved tools and weapons.

Europe's Lost World takes the unusual step for something labelled a "research report" of following the gradual unfolding of knowledge of Doggerland, starting with the work early in the 20th century of Clement Reid, who in a little book called Submerged Forests identified the potential archaeological value of buried lands: "In them the successive stages are separated and isolated instead of being mingled."

The report then goes on to look at what is known from the land of the sites of the period – the Mesolithic, the intermediate culture that it says has traditionally been neglected between the deep mysteries of the Paleolithic and the excitement of great change into farming of the Neolithic. The authors here make a now fashionable claim that at least some of the peoples of the time were considerably less nomadic, and built grander structures, than has traditionally been thought.

They look in detail at the site of Thatcham in Berkshire, centred around a hut about 6m in diameter. (It is impossible now due to erosion to know whether this was solitary or part of the group.) "All the evidence suggested that the house had been maintained and rebuilt on several occasions by a family group, perhaps six or eight people, and that it served several generations of hunters… burnt bone fragments included wild pig, fox and, possibly, a domestic dog. Marine shellfish, particularly dog whelks, were also present on the site."

The seismic analysis that is at the core of this book creates a virtual environment in which it is possible to place people like this, and also creates an understanding of the way the sea would have gradually intruded on this always watery landscape:

"[The analysis] has provided information on c. 16,000km of river channels and no fewer than 24 lakes or marshes, with the largest of these covering more than 300 square kilometres… the heart of Doggerland was a massive water body, mapped for more than 1700 square kilometres, filling the Outer Silver Pit….It seems likely that Markham's Hole was also a large lake during the early Mesolithic… and may contain substantial palaeoenvironmental deposits that archaeologists might consider coring for further information…the features mapped are almost all areas where animal and plant resources that might be of value to hunter-gatherers are likely to be concentrated."

The possibilities here are mindblowing – and the authors are honest in what is known and what is not, stressing in their attempt at reconstructing the climate and vegetation of Doggerland how many unknown unknowns there might be.

That's also their approach to trying, tentatively, to understand how the people of Doggerland might have understood their landscape.

"The heartland of the Mesolithic in north-west Europe would have been constantly shrinking and this would have been obvious to the inhabitants. Sometimes slow then terrifyingly fast, the sea inevitably reclaimed ancestral hunting grounds, campsites and landmarks…[but]the emerging salt marshs may well have been regarded as a gift from the sea… the Mesolithic occupants of Doggerland and the adjacent regions would have regarded water in a unique manner, as a place where the ancestors dwelt and thus an area of special importance. At periods of low tide, these ancestral homelands could have been revisited and venerated."

But the authors don't stop there. They continue on to put Doggerland in a global context, identifying two other comparable sites: Beringia, in which is now the Bering Straits around Alaska and northern Siberia, and Sundaland, which is now the Sunda Shelf and the coastal strip around Malaysia, Indonesia and the South China Sea. But these, due to the lack of the detailed seismic data available for the North Sea, remain terra incognita.

So the experience of Doggerland, however distantly and dimly we can see it, is a reminder of something we had almost forgotten, and that climate change is all too rapidly making us rediscover, rethink – that there are forces and changes on earth far greater than anything we can control. (The report also includes a detailed account of the Storrega tsunami of c. 6100BC, when a huge submarine landslip the size of Scotland produced devastating tsunamis in Scotland and Norway, and may well have finally submerged some islands that remained of Doggerland.)

The authors note that the rate of sea rise in the 20th century – 20cm, "may be higher than at any time since the loss of Doggerland" (and they note that between 18,000 and 5,500 BC sea levels rose by more than 140 metres.) And they note the huge, human, difference: "Ultimately, the Mesolithic communities of the great plains were flexible and mobile. Suffering there must have been, but the communities moved and adapted. Modern society does not have that luxury…Unlike the inhabitants of Doggerland, we have nowhere else to go."

And they have a poignant final point. The archaeological record of Doggerland likely to have been preserved by the sea for thousands of years is now under threat from human development – from industrial fish trawling, from wind farm development, from pipelines. They note that the UK has never ratified the Unesco Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, and that more, given the extent of Doggerland, its protection would require an international agreement. Fitting, really, for a lost land that now has no native protectors of its own.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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