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Swept Away Volume 62 Number 1, January/February 2009
by Samir S. Patel

Rediscovering the ruins of a great medieval center beneath the North Sea

An engraving and a series of photographs of All Saints Church illustrate the fate of most of the medieval city of Dunwich—a progressive descent over a cliff and into the North Sea. The last fragment of All Saints was relocated to the yard of a surviving 19th-century church. The rest lies under the waves.

(Courtesy David Sear/Stuart Bacon/Dunwich Museum)

The North Sea pounds England's eastern coast, reshaping and sometimes taking large bites from it. The medieval town of Dunwich thrived on that coast from the 11th to the 14th century. Built on fishing, shipbuilding, trade, and religious patronage, its economy was one of the largest in the land. Over the centuries, the sea ate away at the town, reducing it to its present state, a seaside village of fewer than 200. Despite legends of a sunken city, the prevailing wisdom has been that the sea ground almost all of medieval Dunwich to sediment, and buried it or carried it away. Some divers have long suspected otherwise, but it was not until 2008 that there was proof, courtesy of multibeam and side-scanning sonar, that Dunwich's major buildings—churches, chapels, and monasteries—lay ruined but still in place below the whitecaps. However, because of the North Sea, the churches of medieval Dunwich might as well be on another planet.


Map shows changing coastline (Google Earth)

According to David Sear, a geomorphologist at the University of Southampton, "it was a bit of a duff place to build on, really." The harbor area was often inundated, and the rest of the town was perched on a crumbly cliff 20 to 30 feet above a narrow beach. As early as 1086, major losses of land had been documented. A storm in 1287 claimed a quarter of the city, including three churches; another in 1328 took hundreds of houses. Storms also blocked Dunwich's port, despite the citizenry's best efforts to keep it clear, crippling its economy. Churches abandoned for lack of parishioners eventually dropped off the cliff. The last fragment of the town's medieval prosperity, All Saints Church, toppled between 1904 and 1919, and even today bones from its churchyard cemetery tumble out of the cliff face. "It is a haunting place, and on a winter's day, one could say, a bit sinister," says Stuart Bacon, an amateur archaeologist and expert on the area.

In 2006, Sear approached Bacon with the idea of cutting through the dark world with multibeam and side-scanning sonar, acoustic technologies that can provide high-resolution depth readings and some indication of the hardness of the seabed. The first-ever 3-D map of the seabed off Dunwich showed that two-thirds of the medieval site is covered by thick sandbanks. Fortunately, a natural tidal channel cuts through the site, scouring out a sort of valley on the seabed. In this area, Sear identified a number of promising sites where hard material stood a yard or so above the soft sand. Two of the sites lined up with churches on Sear's maps: St. Peter's and St. Nicholas's, which went over around 1480.

[image] Multibeam sonar shows clumps of hard material standing above the soft, sandy floor of a tidal channel. More of St. Nicholas's, which toppled over the cliff around 1480, may lie under the sand. (Courtesy David Sear)

Peter Murphy of English Heritage, which provided some of the funding for Sear's research, says that little work has been done on such fully submerged sites in England. He hopes this project will increase their profile and raise awareness of how coasts change over time. In that sense, the exploration of medieval Dunwich is perhaps a glimpse of the future of coastal archaeology, as ancient sites and even modern structures are increasingly subject to rising sea levels and greater erosion. What we lose in legends of sunken cities might come back as clear knowledge of the past.

Samir S. Patel is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.