Beneath the cold grey waves of the North Sea lies a lost landscape where vast herds of mammoth and bison roamed. This land was equal in size to modern Britain and contained hills and valleys, rivers and forests, marsh and moor. Sometimes warm and marshy and at other times a vast frozen tundra - now it is being systematically explored and already revealing evidence of early man. Was this Britain's Atlantis?
At the height of the Ice Ages (and there were at least twenty!), sea levels were up to 300 ft lower than today. Just 8,000 years ago not only was much of the North Sea dry land, but so was the Irish Sea and the English Channel. In between these glaciations, the ice would melt and sea levels rise. Freed from the weight of ice, northern Britain began to rise while southern Britain began to sink - a process that continues today as the land tilt steepens. Long, dry raised beaches can be seen in Scotland, while more and more land is lost to the sea in the south and in the east. We make much of rising sea levels and global warming today, but consider the effects of massive amounts of water being released into the sea as the ice caps (covering much of the Northern Hemisphere) melted. Sea levels rose not by a foot or two, but by hundreds of feet.
The concept of a "land bridge" joining Britain to Europe is well known, but misleading. The term suggests a narrow causeway, but the reality was a vast lowland plain with the northern coastline stretching from Shetland to Jutland. The Thames flowed into the Rhine which turned south and made the English Channel its estuary. The highest point was a hilly region where the Dogger sand-banks are today. Recently, this has been called "Doggerland". Professor Bryony Coles of Exeter University is investigating the archaeology of "Doggerland" and an interesting map can be seen here. Evidence of this lost landscape has been plentiful for some time. Over the last 100 years, fishing boats and dredgers have recovered the tusks and bones of more than 50,000 mammoths! Did they live and die undisturbed or were they trapped on islands by rising waters as sea levels rose? We know that Mesolithic man hunted them because, in 1931 just off the Norfolk coast on the Leman and Ower banks, a fine, barbed harpoon of antler was recovered in a trawl net. It is 11,500 years old! Too valuable to have been carelessly lost, it seems likely that it was lodged in the body of a wounded animal that escaped the hunters to die elsewhere.
You can get a good idea of the submerged landscapes around Britain by looking at marine navigation charts of our coastal waters. On the charts, the depths and shoals will reveal the lost valleys and hills - you can also make out the courses of long lost rivers. More than 500 metres off the coast of Tyneside, scuba-diving archaeologists have found evidence of an undersea early Mesolithic settlement that could be 10,000 years old. Another more recent late Mesolithic site was found nearby. The finds included a flint arrowhead and cutting implements with serrated edges. Penny Spikins who is leading the international submerged prehistoric landscapes project said, "Archaeologists thought that the sites left by people who lived 5-10,000 years ago had simply been lost to the sea. But our finds could change our understanding of the earliest occupation of the British Isles. They open up a whole landscape under the water, a new frontier for archaeology."
Low tides reveal submerged fossil forests off the coasts of Co. Wicklow in Ireland, the Isle of Wight, Dorset and Wales. Hartlepool's submerged forest is an SSSI and the area was covered in forest and peat bog in the Mesolithic. The 2,700-year-old skeleton of a Neolithic man was found buried in its peat in 1971. There is the enduring legend of the lost Cantreff of Gwaelod in Cardigan Bay and surely there must once have been extensive dry land beneath the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay. There is a petrified forest in Mounts Bay, Cornwall with legends of an underwater city below the Seven Stones reef. Here, the legend of Lyonnesse is very strong and just twenty miles away are the Isles of Scilly. This is the best place to see the lost lands when at low tide, Bronze Age tombs, houses and field walls are revealed. Scilly was still one island in Roman times and only became an archipelago during the Tudor period. Other losses in Norfolk are the Roman Road across The Wash and Dunwich with its seven churches - one of the main ports of Medieval England.
Prehistoric Atlantis With new underwater mapping and survey techniques, the story of Britain's "Prehistoric Atlantis" will be discovered. We shall not find the Lost Continent of Plato's Atlantis of course, but nevertheless there will be much to excite us. Close to shore there will be traces of Roman and Medieval settlements, while further out in the deeper water, the evidence will be harder to find. The hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic and Palaeolithic would have built any shelters of wood and possibly mammoth ivory (as in Siberia) so little trace will have survived. Speaking about the Tyneside discovery, Chief Archaeologist David Miles of English Heritage said "We know that there is a prehistoric Atlantis beneath the North Sea, where an area equal in size to Britain attached us to the continent. This discovery gives us a stepping stone into this unknown world."