Most of us are vaguely aware that Britain was once part of mainland Europe, and if you listen to Radio 4’s nightly Shipping Forecast, you have heard of a region called ‘Dogger’ which covers part of it. I have also come across a few accounts of North Sea Fishermen finding the remains of huge old trees or the bones of woolly mammoths in their nets but the current Current Archaeology has an article by Jim Leary that puts a very human face on the region. His book ‘The Remembered Land: Surviving Sea-Level Rise after the Last Ice Age’ looks like a worthwhile investment.
He talks of rising sea levels producing ‘coastal squeeze’ especially after the last Ice Age
“Traces of these drowned landscapes can sometimes be seen today, as clusters of ancient tree stumps are periodically exposed in intertidal zones. Such finds have been recorded since at least the Middle Ages, when 12th century chroniclers interpreted them as evidence for the Biblical Flood – an idea still entertained into the 18th and 19th centuries.
One such area – a prehistoric land larger than the United Kingdom, which 12,000 years ago joined Britain to mainland Europe in a wide, uninterrupted plain stretching from eastern England to the Netherlands… yet by the 5th millennium BC when the margins of the North Sea had swept close to their present coastline, this landscape had been entirely lost beneath the waves, with its inhabitants forced to move on a climate-change refugees. “
Obviously, as this region is now underwater, archaeologists have problems researching it. But they can map the sea floor, analyse sediment and f course ongoing items are found by fishermen,
The map of this region is fascinating, as it makes us see our landscape with fresh eyes. The Ilse of Wight was inland, beside the Monocline Enclosure. The cliffs of Dover were the northern edge of a gorge. The Thames and the Yare (passing the Barley Picle and Cross Sands Anomaly) ran into the Lebourg Channel which was also fed by the Scheldt Meuse and Rhine in the marshy region called the Delta Plain. In the north of what became England is the wonderfully named Flamborough Head Disturbance, which sounds like some happening from the 1960s.
Far more artefacts ave been found in the Baltic region off Denmark which include “Textile fragments, wooden paddles, well-preserved Mesolithic dwellings -some with intact bark floors” have all been found, preserved by the same forces that forced the humans to abandon them. On the German Baltic coast they have found dugout canoes, paddles, fishing harpoons and a bow made of elm. More items have been found in the Netherlands, in the Rhine/Meuse delta including 10 million fish bones. Bouldnor Cliff on the Isle of Wight has yielded Britain’s oldest piece of string. But all this is physical. What of the people who lost their homes, their sense of place, something modern Europeans have largely lost. In Germany they have a word ‘Heimat’ which speaks of their sense of place, of family, land and culture. English has no such word; we’ve been too mobile for too long for such a concept, though our Romantic poets did their best to instil it in us. Back to Jim Leary who writes beautifully of the social impact of these inundations:
“The loss of familiar locales where a community’s legends were created and identities forged – a landscape that had a past, both mythical and historical, and was inscribed with paths and places that were meaningful to the people who lived within it – would have deeply troubled displaced communities. Northsealand would have represented not just a home but a storehouse of memories and ideas; place is evocative, closely tied to memory and every woodland glade, coppice tree or axe mark, every flint scatter or decaying house platform told of a history both personal and communal, a story of actions past and of lives lived in that place. “
He cites Keith Basso who wrote of the Western Apache “That they used places as ‘vehicles for recalling useful knowledge’ and that natural features were therefore descriptively named and tied to lifeways, providing a sense of place and history.” This practice is common to many modern hunter-gatherers, so probably also to the people of this region.
He cites the effect of modern climate change, which suggests what impact our ancestors suffered:
In Canada’s Sachs Harbour.. more frequent and intense storms caused by modern climate change are wreaking havoc on local boating conditions and the movements of traditionally hunted sea mammals… Traditional ways have been affected more fundamentally at Baker Lake in Nunavut, Canada. Here the prevailing north-east wind once caused grass to bend and freeze in a south-west direction, which travellers used to set their bearings and navigate the tundra. Increasingly unpredictable wind patterns mean that the reliability of these methods is now less sure, however and trust in the weather and landscape is eroding. Long-used hunting grounds are also becoming inaccessible, while traditional campsites have been swept away by surging rivers swollen with meltwater. … they represent a change in how people engage with their physical and psychological world. “
He continues with the effect of the Kariba dam on the Zambezi River in the 1950s when locals lost not only their homelands, but their shrines.
“This had a serious impact on ritual activity which was suspended for 4 years amid concerns abut rebuilding the shrines elsewhere, due to the potential spiritual dangers of lingering ancestors. As communities broke apart in the upheaval, kinsfolk were separated, social ties weakened, and faith in many of the chiefs eroded. The resettlement of people from alongside the Volta River, as a result of the Akosombo dam in Ghana, also caused cultural crisis… Many of he gods of the affected Ewe and Akan people were associated with particular places in the now-drowned landscape, and while it was believed that some of the deities could be persuaded to move, others were so securely linked to their location that they refused to leave and were inundated.”
He continues by suggesting the effects of these forced upheavals may have suffered what are now recognised as mental health problems, from anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To this must be added the problems of being forced to move to an area that was already settled, so unlikely to be welcoming to strangers.