The British Isles split from Europe several thousand years ago. Now, maritime archaeology is revealing a lost landscape on the seafloor

A Bronze Age structure, which became known as Seahenge, a 4,000-year-old timber circle found in Norfolk.
A Bronze Age structure, which became known as Seahenge, a 4,000-year-old timber circle found in Norfolk. © Michael Walter/PA


Maritime archaeology has sought evidence of these drowned “paleolandscapes” around the world. Perhaps the most incredible example in Europe is Cosquer Cave near Marseille, France. Divers found the cave entrance at 37 meters, but as they explored the passages they discovered an air pocket at sea level. Preserved on the walls were paintings from 27,000-19,000 years ago from the time when the entire cave system was above the Pleistocene sea level and ancient people used the cave for religious rituals.

Archaeologists are now looking toward the English Channel and North Sea for evidence of drowned landscapes. “Many people may not realise that much of the North Sea was once dry land,” says Dr Rachel Bynoe. “These now-drowned landscapes contain important information about the lives of our ancestors from the Palaeolithic all the way through until the Neolithic period.” Finding sites in the North Sea is like finding a needle in a haystack, but Bynoe and her colleagues use a novel approach combining old and new methods. The seafloor is being mapped using the latest ocean survey equipment to find ancient riverbeds and other landscape features. Since the 19th century fishermen have found bones of Pleistocene animals such as mammoths in their nets. As she recently published in Antiquity, Bynoe combines the data from the fishing fleets with the seafloor maps to try to identify intact Pleistocene layers on the seafloor.

One site that is changing our understanding of the past is Bouldnor Cliff off the Isle of Wight. Discovered in 1999 when a lobster was seen pushing stone tools out of its burrow, the Maritime Archaeology Trust has conducted annual excavations on the site that dates to 8,000 years ago. At a depth of 11 metres below sea level, the archaeologists have found tools, wooden artefacts, and even the oldest piece of string. The biggest discovery was made in 2015 and published in Science. DNA from the sediments on site contained wheat DNA, suggesting that wheat products were imported to Britain before wheat was cultivated in the country approximately 2,000 years later. The research is helping to understand the transition from Mesolithic hunter-gathers to the farmers of the Neolithic. 

It is the area known as Doggerland which perhaps hold the greatest potential. This submerged region of 17,000 km2 around Dogger Bank is located in the middle of the North Sea and it once connected Britain to Scandinavia.