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Opinion

Discover how Doggerland links Britain, Europe and ‘the last Brexit’

Britain has rarely been an island entire of itself, enjoying splendid isolation – it was linked to Europe by a busy stretch of ‘prime real estate’. Professor Vince Gaffney gives his rough guide to Doggerland and explains how our continental ties are far from lost

“For those who want to make Britain less insular, the answer is not to submit forever to the EU legal border but to think about how we can undo the physical separation that took place at the end of the Ice Age. Fly over the Channel at Dover and you see how narrow it is, the ferries plying back and forth like buses at Oxford Street, and as you measure the blue straits with your fingers you can see that his moat is really an overgrown prehistoric river that once flowed down from the mountains of Norway and was fed by its tributaries the Thames, the Rhine and the Seine. Indeed, Britain and Holland used to be joined in the old days by a territory known as Doggerland, though the customs of Doggerland are now lost to history.” Boris Johnson

When Boris Johnson appealed for British unity in his recent keynote speech I suspect that many people may have been surprised to hear the Foreign Minister refer to Doggerland – the prehistoric land mass underneath the North Sea. Named after the Dogger banks – and usually only heard by insomniacs on the shipping weather forecast late on Radio 4 – these long-lost lands rarely crop up in contemporary political debate. However, the current discussion regarding Brexit and climate change suggests their 15 minutes of fame may have arrived.

Seas rise and fall and those that surround Britain have throughout geological time  most often been broad plains connecting the area of Britain with continental Europe

The British are rather comfortable with their concept of insularity, and perhaps exceptionalism, but historically the periods when Britain was actually an island, set in an azure main, are relatively rare. Seas rise and fall and those that surround Britain have throughout geological time  most often been broad plains connecting the area of Britain with continental Europe. On relatively rare occasions these plains have been the victim of climate change and rising seas, following the retreat of glaciers and ice sheets. The period Boris Johnson is referring to follows the last the end of the last Ice Age c. 18,000 years ago when Britain’s last Brexit occurred, around c.7-8,000 years when the lands that were to become Britain were finally separated by the North Sea and the English Channel. The scale, and nature, of these changes were staggering and global. Not only was the whole world transformed by the loss of 20 million km2 of coastal lowland – more than twice the area of the USA – the climate and landscape morphed from tundra to mixed forest and even the human economy shifted towards the end of the period when the last hunter gatherers turned to farming as a way of life.

Such facts might easily have been relegated to the status of geological curiosities had these lands not been the home of so many people, attracted to the great plains, full of animals, fish and water. At a time before the introduction of agriculture the plains of the North Sea were prime real estate for hunter gatherer societies, and probably stood in contrast to the area of that would become Britain, which was effectively a low range of hills on a north western peninsular of Europe. A hinterland of settlement rather than a heartland.

The Foreign Secretary, is of course, a classicist and a historian, with a taste for Victorian and Edwardian turns of phrase and literature. He probably knows quite well that although the history and customs of Doggerland are little known to the public today, the existence of Doggerland, if not their customs, were actually quite well known to the British people. The name Doggerland was probably coined as early as 1919, in the Children’s Newspaper a popular publication and the precursor to Look and Learn a magazine, which would be well-known to older readers! However, H.G. Wells was well aware of the history of the North Sea and actually wrote about it in 1897 in one of his lesser known works A Story of the Stone Age which he introduced with the a description of these lands –

“This story is of a time beyond the memory of man, before the beginning of history, a time when one might have walked dryshod from France (as we call it now) to England, and when a broad and sluggish Thames flowed through its marshes to meet its father Rhine, flowing through a wide and level country that is under water in these latter days, and which we know by the name of the North Sea.”

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Wells’ description is not, I think, so different to that painted by the Foreign Minister in his speech on February 14. Whilst heartening that Boris sees Doggerland as a meme for unity, the truth is we actually tend to think of the past as a foreign country and Doggerland, which at its greatest extent was larger than England, is almost entirely inaccessible beneath tens of metres of water and then marine sediments. Consequently, I am happy to report that, whilst we cannot confirm the ancient customs of Doggerland archaeologists, like myself are beginning to explore the landscape that has been hidden from us for millennia.

To date nearly 43,000km2 of prehistoric countryside, with its rivers, streams, lakes, hills, has been mapped and clothed within computer models to show how the landscape and people reacted to massive climate change

All explorers need maps and the Europe’s Lost Frontiers project, at the University of Bradford and its research partners, has been funded by the European Research Council, brings together experts from the fields of archaeology, geophysics, molecular biology and computer simulation to explore these lost landscapes. The project aims to study how the communities of the great plains reacted to climate change and the encroaching sea, as well as seeking clues to how these communities responded to the introduction of farming and the decline of hunter-gatherer societies used marine geophysics to create images of a landscape they could never actually visit. This has involved analysis of huge areas of survey data, collected by the energy industry and for research by European governments.

To date nearly 43,000km2 of prehistoric countryside, with its rivers, streams, lakes, hills, has been mapped by the project and hundreds of metres of marine sediment have been cored from the long lost river valleys to provide DNA, pollen, beetles and diatoms that are allowing us to clothe the landscape within massive computer models to simulate how the landscape and people reacted to massive climate change.

This work is, in fact in it’s early stages. However, until recently we knew more about the dark side of the moon than the societies who occupied the lands that Boris Johnson waxed lyrical about, but this is changing. Without wishing to engage too vigorously in the current debate, Doggerland is a cautionary tale as much as an inspirational one.

Those who seek to minimise the effect of climate change need only look at the fate of Doggerland and the other, equally or more extensive, areas of land lost to past sea level rise to understand the significance of climate change – natural or man-made. It may also be significant that, at a time when political boundaries are being redrawn, to remember that the loss of Doggerland was not an abstract event. Without doubt these changes, sometimes slow and at other times perhaps very rapid, must have caused distress and even suffering as the memories and heritage of these lost lands disappeared.

Moreover, we are recovering some of these memories through Lost Frontier, funded through the European Research Council, and a host of other transnational research efforts. We should be cautious before choosing to lose the cultural and geographical connections of Doggerland.

By Professor Vince Gaffney @gaffney_v

Follow Europe’s Lost Frontiers project’s latest research at @LostFrontiersBD on Facebook and on their website: lostfrontiers.teamapp.com

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