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Letter from Doggerland

Mapping a Vanished Landscape

Evidence of a lost Mesolithic world lies deep beneath the dark waters of the North Sea

By JASON URBANUS

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Doggerland Tree StumpOn a September night in 1931, the British fishing vessel Colinda was sailing 25 miles off the Norfolk coast of England near the North Sea’s Leman and Ower Banks. Trawlers like Colinda operated by dragging nets across the sea floor, scooping up everything in their path––fish, shells, seaweed, or otherwise. As the crew hauled up their net from a depth of 120 feet, the boat’s skipper, Pilgrim Lockwood, noticed a large block of peat among the catch. As he smacked it with his shovel to break it up and toss it overboard, he hit something hard, which he later recalled sounded like striking metal. Upon examination, Lockwood noticed an unusual object embedded in the clump. It was 8.5 inches long, with a barbed edge, and appeared to resemble some sort of prehistoric harpoon carved from bone or antler. Its discovery would soon alter the field of European prehistory and open the doors to a vast now-submerged landscape hidden beneath the North Sea. After the last Ice Age ended, this became the heartland for generations of European hunter-gatherers before it disappeared under the sea 8,000 years ago. Today, this lost world is known as Doggerland.

 

Doggerland MapExperts from the British Museum who examined the Colinda harpoon, as it came to be called, determined that it likely dated to the Mesolithic period (10,000–4000 B.C.), the era of the hunter-gathers who lived just before the advent of agriculture. Archaeologists wrestled with the question of how such an object had ended up more than 20 miles offshore at the bottom of the North Sea. It seemed unlikely that prehistoric mariners could have dropped it during a fishing expedition, given the limited long-distance seafaring capabilities they possessed at the time.

 

The scientific world was shocked the year following the artifact’s discovery when pollen analysis carried out on peat extracted from the Leman and Ower Banks indicated that, although it lay 120 feet below the sea, the deposit had formed in a freshwater environment, not a marine one. Whoever had lost the harpoon had done so while walking across land. This revelation was groundbreaking. Although some scholars had theorized that the North Sea was once much lower, as evidenced by the remnants of ancient forests that occasionally protrude out of tidal flats at places such as Pett Level in Sussex, England, the Colinda harpoon was the first tangible piece of evidence suggesting that an extensive landmass had once connected Great Britain to the continent. “It’s an important object because the idea became clear that not only was this a landscape that was not always sea,” says Luc Amkreutz, curator of prehistoric collections at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, “but that it must have been one inhabited by humans.”

 

Throughout the later twentieth century, further evidence of this drowned world continued to be dredged up by fishing nets, as trawlers raised bone, antler, and stone artifacts that had lain along the seafloor for thousands of years. In the late 1990s this mysterious Mesolithic land finally received a name. The term Doggerland was coined by University of Exeter archaeologist Bryony Coles, who named it after Dogger Bank, a submerged sandbank 60 miles off the English coast frequented by Dutch fishing vessels known as doggers.

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