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Stone artefacts and 'prehistoric woodland' discovered off Norfolk coast

PUBLISHED: 23:02 11 June 2019 | UPDATED: 23:02 11 June 2019

3D laser scan of the flint, with raked lighting to show surface features. Picture: Tom Sparrow, Visualising Heritage, University of Bradford

3D laser scan of the flint, with raked lighting to show surface features. Picture: Tom Sparrow, Visualising Heritage, University of Bradford

Tom Sparrow, Visualising Heritage, University of Bradford

Scientists investigating the hidden landscape of the North Sea bed have discovered ancient stone fragments that hint at prehistoric settlements submerged beneath the waves.

Archeologists from Belgium and Britain discovered the stone artefacts during an 11-day expedition last month to explore sites of geographical and archeological interests off the coast of north Norfolk.

The European researchers found a small piece of flint and a larger fragment of a stone hammer during their study of an ancient river system close to the coast of Cromer, as well as evidence of prehistoric peat and wood samples, suggesting an ancient woodland once stood what is now 40km from the shores of the Netherlands.

A spokesperson for the joint Belgian-UK-Dutch project, known as 'Deep History', said the first discovery was "possibly the waste product of stone tool making" while the second was "a larger piece, broken from the edge of a stone hammer, an artefact used to make a variety of other flint tools".

They added: "As well as being evidence for flint tool production, the hammer fragment would once have been part of a personal tool kit.

A series of images of the flint (laser scanned and colour photos). Picture: Tom Sparrow, Visualising Heritage, University of BradfordA series of images of the flint (laser scanned and colour photos). Picture: Tom Sparrow, Visualising Heritage, University of Bradford

"Research is still ongoing into this artefact and its context within the landscape."

READ MORE: UK researchers join bid to uncover the mysteries of Doggerland

The May 2019 project, led by an international team of scientists from Ghent University and the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) in Belgium, and the University of Bradford in the UK, was run by Dr. Tine Missiaen, from VLIZ, and saw two sites in the North Sea undergo analysis and physical sampling of the seabed.

The research is linked to ongoing efforts to create a 3D-map of the surface of the seabed stretching from the East of England, the Netherlands and Denmark - known as Doggerland - which was submerged by rising seas almost 8,000 years ago.

Map of the survey (lines marked on in yellow). Location of the Flint is labelled Map of the survey (lines marked on in yellow). Location of the Flint is labelled "B". Picture: Europe’s Lost Frontiers/VLIZ

Called 'Europe's Lost Frontiers', the Bradford-led researchers have been recreating the drowned landscape with data from oil, gas, coal and windfarm companies, including the Swedish energy giant Vattenfall, over the past two years.

The May expedition saw the research teams - aboard the Belgian ship, RV Belgica - employ acoustic, geophysical, and parametric sonar techniques to search for evidence of human settlements beneath the challenging conditions one of the world's busiest seaways.

READ MORE: Finding Doggerland: Recalling the era when Britain really was no island

A 3D image of the submerged land surface - with features and location of flint find marked on. Picture: Europe's Lost FrontiersA 3D image of the submerged land surface - with features and location of flint find marked on. Picture: Europe's Lost Frontiers

Three areas were targeted to obtain high-resolution images of deposits underneath the seabed, despite the study being affected by poor weather.

And researchers were able to confirm the existence of an Early Holocence land surface, close to the coast of the Netherlands, thought to have been the site of an area of prehistoric forest.

While a large ancient river and estuary system was also identified just 25km from Norfolk's shores, and nodules of flint from ancient chalk outcrops were recorded during the survey.

The project spokesperson added: "The material recovered suggests that the expedition has revealed a well-preserved, prehistoric landscape, which must have contained a prehistoric woodland."

The area of the North Sea that is being searched for lost prehistoric settlements. Picture: Europes Lost Frontiers/VLIZThe area of the North Sea that is being searched for lost prehistoric settlements. Picture: Europes Lost Frontiers/VLIZ

"The recovery of stone artefacts not only demonstrate that these landscapes were inhabited but also that archaeologists can, for the first time, prospect for evidence of human occupation in the deeper waters of the North Sea with some certainty of success."

READ MORE: Will the secrets of Doggerland - once Norfolk's 'neighbour' - be revealed by North Sea discovery?

'Deep History', which aims to reveal the secrets of the southern North Sea, by reconstructing the last 500,000 years of history and human occupation of the area, received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, and also includes researchers from other UK universities and the Natural History Museum.

Further study of the recovered artefacts and future expeditions to the prehistoric seabed are ongoing.

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