Finding Doggerland: Recalling the era when Britain really was no island
PUBLISHED: 15:28 21 February 2019 | UPDATED: 15:38 21 February 2019
East Anglia was once connected to continental Europe by an expanse called Doggerland. ALAN TUTT from Cromer Museum looks at what remains of this near-mythical land.
At a time when the United Kingdom appears to be drifting slowly but inexorably apart from Europe – politically and economically speaking, at least - a new book by Julia Blackburn highlights a time when the British landmass was actually physically joined to the landmass of northern Europe.
‘Time Song: Searching for Doggerland’ explores the area that now lies deep beneath the North Sea, formerly called the German Sea, but which once was a fertile landscape of gently rolling hills, marshland, wooded valleys, and swampy lagoons; teeming with animals, trees, insects, plants, birds, amphibians and, yes, people.
Our human ancestors.
That place was Doggerland, an area which perhaps is best known to us as an early landscape manifestation of one of the shipping forecast areas we now call Dogger. Doggerland was named in the 1990s by Professor Bryony Coles, after the Dogger Bank, which in turn was named after the 17th century Dutch fishing boats called doggers – cod-fishing boats.
The timescale for this human occupation was the Mesolithic period – the Stone Age period between the Upper Palaeolithic and the Neolithic.
In the Palaeolithic period, people were pure hunter-gatherers. In the Neolithic, they were becoming farmers in settlements with domesticated animals and crops, with many kinds of tools, burial offerings and with pottery.
The Mesolithic was a transitional period between the two.
Rising sea levels gradually reduced Doggerland to low-lying islands before its final submergence, circa 7,000 years ago, possibly following a tsunami caused by the Storegga Slide, a phenomena occurring off the Norwegian shelf. Norfolk, Suffolk and the Netherlands were united no more.
The proximity of the north Norfolk coast to Doggerland means that places like West Runton, Cromer and Happisburgh come under her gaze because of their geological, archaeological and palaeontological importance.
One thinks of the fossilised steppe mammoth discovered almost intact from the Cromer forest bed at West Runton in 1990 - a 4m high, 10 tonne beast - now displayed in part in Cromer Museum, the rest stored at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse; the rhino skull discovered by Jonathan Stewart in 2015 – both manifestations of the gathering of animals at the ancient river bed there, to slake their thirst and to prey, and be preyed upon; to die and become fossilised over aeons.
One thinks of early hand axes, knapped to perfection, ready to scrape away flesh from a fresh kill.
One thinks of the finds made by keen amateur fossil hunters and dogged beachcombers, brought in for ID to public institutions like Cromer Museum and Norwich Castle.
And so, as Doggerland slowly slipped away, drowning under the rising waters, its peoples were forced onto higher ground in the adjacent Netherlands and East Anglia.
As sea levels continue to rise today, this is a process that may well affect more coastal people, and indeed those farther inland, in the future. Future islands within theses isles.
Other Dogger discoveries of prehistoric finds include bits of textile, paddles and Mesolithic dwellings, settlements with sunken floors, dugout canoes, fish traps and burial sites.
As recently as 2015, divers discovered tracts of prehistoric forests off the coast of Norfolk, remains of compressed trees and branches.
A subterranean landscape. Villages beneath the sea, long before Shipden, the precursor of Cromer.
So as one gazes out at the steel grey North Sea today, scanning the wintry horizon for a fishing trawler, container ship or the turbines of wind farms, in one’s imagination Doggerland rears its ancient head and instead one cannot but help see early man, clad in animal furs, bearing primitive weaponry amid the flora and fauna of another time; a time when Brexit might have only meant the physical breaking away of Britain from Europe by the inundation of the sea, rather than the result of a nation’s plebiscite.
Time Song: An ode to a lost land
In Time Song, Blackburn focuses on Doggerland but allows herself to drift from the subject, poetically, geographically and psychologically.
As she freely admits, she is not a professional scientist so she enlists experts from numerous fields to assist her in pinning down Doggerland in turn riffing on their findings in a series of 18 poems or time songs.
This results in a highly individualistic, lyrical and highly entertaining take contrasting with some of the more forensic, perhaps drier, studies of Doggerland.
Blackburn personalises these processes, humanises these stories, and deconstructs these fables.
So, for example in Time Song 4, she describes how ‘on the beach at Happisburgh, pronounced as if it were a haze’, the oldest human footprints outside of Africa were found:
‘One hundred and two footprints, twelve of them complete,
Indicating five individuals, Of different ages,
A little human group, moving in a southerly direction
Across the mudflats, of a large tidal river
Between eight hundred and fifty, and nine hundred and fifty thousand years ago’
-‘Time Song: Searching for Doggerland’ by Julia Blackburn, is published by Jonathan Cape.
Doggerland: Words from the past
The existence of Doggerland was first alluded to in a 19th century book ‘A Story of the Stone Age’ by HG Wells, set in a prehistoric time where a in just a few days one could walk from Europe to Britain. Discoveries within the Doggerland have included the remains of mammoth and rhinoceros, and hunting artefacts that have all been dredged up from the sea floor of the North Sea.
In 1931, a trawler named Colinda hauled up a lump of peat whilst fishing near the Ower Bank, 25 miles off the English coast.
The peat contained an ornate barbed antler point used for harpooning fish, dating from between 4,000-10,000 BC. As the poet, Jo Bell muses:
‘Out from Cromer in an easy sea, Pilgrim Lockwood cast his nets and fetched up a harpoon.
Twelve thousand years had blunted not one barb. An antler sharpened to a spike, a bony bread knife
from a time of glassy uplands and no bread: Greetings from Doggerland, it said.’
- Cromer Museum, with its fossil and geology galleries, will now open on March 1 and not April 1 as previously advertised.