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Beyond Stone & Bone

Drowned Worlds
by Heather Pringle
July 25, 2008

Surface of the Earth A fascinating article on Doggerland that appeared in the July 10th issue of Nature reminds me yet again that the real Terra Incognita in archaeology is not on land at all: it lies under the world’s oceans. Doggerland, as you may know, is the name of a vast plain that joined Britain to Europe for nearly 12,000 years, until sea levels began rising dramatically after the last Ice Age. Taking its name from a prominent shipping hazard—Dogger Bank—this immense landbridge vanished beneath the North Sea around 6000 B.C.

Like all landbridges, Doggerland seems to have been a pretty busy thoroughfare for ancient hunters and gatherers. But archaeologists hardly gave it a thought until 2002. In that year, a small group of British researchers laid hands on seismic survey data collected by the petroleum industry in the North Sea. They put it to work in an ingenious way, reconstructing a soccer-field-sized patch of Doggerland. Since then, interest in this drowned world has grown dramatically. A University of Wolverhampton computer engineer, Eugene Ch’ng, for example, is building a virtual-reality simulation of an ancient Doggerland river valley during the Mesolithic period, which began 10,000 years ago. This longlost world is complete down to patches of stinging nettles indicated by pollen records from nearby regions, and painstaking recreations of Mesolithic huts and hide-tanning racks.

Such reconstructions are more than just displays of scientific shock and awe. By visualizing the continental shelves in detail, archaeologists hope to home in on promising landscapes for costly underwater exploration and excavation. Doggerland, for example, may have been rife with Mesolithic sites, and archaeologists are immensely keen to see how bands from this period made use of the landscape and adapted to rising sea levels.

And here’s the key point. Doggerland is currently in the spotlight, but it is by no means the only lost world attracting scientific attention. Canadian researchers have mapped drowned river deltas and forests along the west coast of British Columbia in hopes of discovering campsites of Ice Age coastal mariners. And American archaeologists have charted and explored drowned river valleys in Florida’s Apalachee Bay, collecting from their slopes more than 4000 pieces of chipped stone as well as bone fragments from giant sloths and other Ice Age animals.

Underwater research is incredibly expensive, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the future of archaeology lies at least partly under the waves.

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4 comments for "Drowned Worlds"

  • Reply posted by Robert Holley (August 5, 2008, 5:00 am):

    Aboriginal Australians were said to have arrived 40-60k yrs ago and it has been my belief that they would have followed the much lower sea shore around the coast rather than go through the interior. I surmise that is the reason why some sites, extreme distances apart, have similar dating. The former coastal plains of Australia would be good place to look for sites, especially the Gulf of Carpentaria.


  • Reply posted by Charles Walker (August 12, 2008, 11:16 am):

    San Francisco Bay didn’t exist 15,000 BP, when the earliest Americans were allegedly making their way south along the California coast. Instead it was San Francisco Valley and the coastline was about 15 miles west of the Golden Gate. Original settlers in the valley probably left their traces near the bottom of the valley. No concerted attempts, that I know of, are being made to examine dredgings or construction core samples. Of course, the original valley bottom is beneath heavy, extensicve river deposits left by the gold miners of mid-1800s.


  • Reply posted by bert (May 3, 2010, 10:25 am):

    what should be done is to make a map with the sea-level 100 meters below current level all over the world and search for signs of human remains/dwelling etc, on that shore-line, I’m sure that would result in stunning finds, as is already happening in for instance Doggerland and Denmark and the UK, what about the global deluge in all human myth, is it not right here?


  • Reply posted by Drowned (September 26, 2011, 7:05 pm):

    Didn’t the original settlers leave traces near the bottom of the valley? I think someone should get those!


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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