Most cultures around the world have a Noah’s ark-style story – of a great inundation that consumes the whole planet. One rare exception is the eastern parts of the British Isles. Which is odd, because the archaeologists have recently established that just off the east coast of England there was a great lost land, an area greater than the existing UK, you might even call it a culture, which disappeared completely beneath the waves only around 6,000 years before today. One explanation for this loss might be that the repeated invasions of the east coast in the historical period disrupted regional myth cycles, in contrast to the continuity of Celtic cultures of the west coast.
But one effect of this historical disruption is clear: it makes Europe’s Lost World: The Rediscovery of Doggerland particularly fascinating and gripping – slightly odd really, when you consider that this has the dry-sounding subtitle of “Research Report No 160 Council of British Archaeology”.
You’d have, however, to be a very dry sort indeed, not to be captured by the tale of the gradual unfolding of knowledge of an entire lost world in Europe – a world that the geological surveys of oil companies and pipe-laying firms has enabled the experts to map, and the archaeologists to reconstruct. Some of the seismic data is a bit on the technical side; some of the images (and the council deserves credit for producing such a finely and voluminously illustrated as well as accessible monograph) are only for the expert to really judge, but they do bring alive this story of a lost – and possibly one day recoverable – culture.
The name Doggerland comes from the Dogger Bank, a relatively shallow area in the North Sea from which fishermen have for decades been dredging artefacts – including some finely carved tools and weapons.
Europe’s Lost World takes the unusual step for something labelled a “research report” of following the gradual unfolding of knowledge of Doggerland, starting with the work early in the 20th century of Clement Reid, who in a little book called Submerged Forests identified the potential archaeological value of buried lands: “In them the successive stages are separated and isolated instead of being mingled.”
The report then goes on to look at what is known from the land of the sites of the period – the Mesolithic, the intermediate culture that it says has traditionally been neglected between the deep mysteries of the Paleolithic and the excitement of great change into farming of the Neolithic. The authors here make a now fashionable claim that at least some of the peoples of the time were considerably less nomadic, and built grander structures, than has traditionally been thought.
They look in detail at the site of Thatcham in Berkshire, centred around a hut about 6m in diameter. (It is impossible now due to erosion to know whether this was solitary or part of the group.) “All the evidence suggested that the house had been maintained and rebuilt on several occasions by a family group, perhaps six or eight people, and that it served several generations of hunters… burnt bone fragments included wild pig, fox and, possibly, a domestic dog. Marine shellfish, particularly dog whelks, were also present on the site.”