Doggerland, a submerged landscape

This is an unedited version of a piece that appeared in Ernest Journal 7. For the purposes of publication due to limitations with space, certain key elements of this piece had to be omitted. This is the revised original draft.

It is early morning. The sun sits low on the horizon, sheathed in cloud like a great occluded eye. I am standing on a beach in Suffolk. Beneath my feet, the shingle swirls and clatters with the relentless lapping of tides. It reminds me that this coastline in particular is viscous, malleable, a series of endlessly shifting co-ordinates. Just a few miles down the coast is Dunwich,  once the great ancient capital of The Kingdom of the Angles. Now just a  village, it has gradually succumbed to the sea, a process of erosion that has been reducing this coastline for centuries. As I gaze outwards across the vast shimmering fact of the North Sea, it strikes me forcibly that beneath these waves, there was once a great tract of land, a field of plains, forests, rivers and lakes the size of a country, a country we now know as Doggerland. 

Doggerland rose to prominence in the modern imagination over a century ago. Tales of a submerged “land bridge”  between Britain and mainland France pervaded until archaeologist Clement Reid published Submerged Forests in 1913, which inferred so much more. Reid’s radical proposition upset the archaeological community of the time. He suggested that an entire inundated land mass existed beneath the North Sea. Surrounding coastlines as far away as Cheshire had also thrown up physical evidence of fossilised tree stumps at low tide events. Reid’s book and theories were rapidly discredited by his peers, and consigned to the archive of forgotten history,  yet today, his life and work have gained new relevance, substantiated by hard physical evidence, and bolstered by the technological advancements made in bathymetry and deep ocean scanning.  

The ancient mesolithic plains of Doggerland were slowly consumed by the sea in a post ice-age thaw over the centuries. As the waters rose, and the sea gradually encroached, its inhabitants would have survived on small islets (of which Dogger Bank was one), and trade, hunting, travel, community would gradually have become untenable. Eventually and inevitably, Doggerlanders would have had to make the precarious journey to higher ground, and what is now the east coast would almost certainly have become safe and familiar territory. 

With no extant oral or written transcripts, we have no way of knowing the lives of these ancients, their routines, their belief systems.  It is entirely conceivable that water would have held a special significance for ancient Doggerlanders. Water veneration might have featured heavily in their lives and spiritual practices, and it is possible that during low tide events, they revisited the remaining islets, which were perhaps reserved as burial grounds for their dead. There are notable references to this practice in ancient Scandinavian and Russian cultures, who similarly inter their dead on islands to separate their spirits from the living.   

For centuries, tales of lost islands and lost lands, deluged by the ocean have persisted in folk memory. Cursory research into British folklore and mythology reveals a number of mythical landscapes, lost to the waves.  There are numerous folk tales telling of a lost land named Cantre’r Gwaelod, ( the Lowland Hundred) off the coast of Wales,  Lyonesse, west of Cornwall, Hy Brasil, west of Ireland, Tir na nog, or St Brendan’s Isle, also off the coast of Ireland, and several others.  On the basis of bathymetric evidence, all of these islands fall within the area of an ancient “shelf” that once existed as a continuum of the European land mass. 

 Interestingly, most of these folk memories survive predominantly in the west of the country. Why would this be?  The continuity of Celtic culture in the west of the country, would almost certainly have ensured that folk memory and the myth cycle would be well preserved over time.  Surely Doggerland –  a huge and indeed significant land-mass, with many hundreds (or even thousands) of inhabitants, would have equally preserved its myths, its folk memory?  Archaeologists and ethnologists have argued that Doggerlanders were widely dispersed  and assimilated into other cultures, and all oral recollections were lost. The other possibility, and to me, the most convincing, is that the deluge came rapidly, swamping the east coast like an aquatic Pompeii. 

How then, do we depict the drowned landscape of Doggerland? How might we understand its inhabitants, their beliefs, rituals, their daily lives?

I recently visited the ancient Bronze Age site at Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire,  a submerged oak causeway there, stretches over a kilometre across an often bleak, water-saturated fenland . Here, offerings were made to the waters by ancient people,  most of these objects having been damaged before offering was made.  These perhaps propitiatory artefacts must have held some spiritual or ritualistic significance to the inhabitants of that place, yet this ancient belief system is unknown to us;  buried in the sediment of time. 

In attempting to dowse its energy, there is something of a mystical,  funerary atmosphere to this place which I can’t put into words.  Many hundreds of bones and bone artefacts have been retrieved from here, and there is also evidence of ancient burial mounds nearby on higher ground.  The landscape around the fens is characteristically flat, and once all 21st century interventions have been removed, my perception of the landscape is transformed.  As I traverse the site, what strikes me is the vastness of open sky.  The fen is currently populated with invasive species of sedges and rushes;  organic spires that puncture the horizon line,  a physical barrier to the modern mind. This might once have been a powerful place, a place where the dividing line between horizon, earth and sky was almost imperceptible. This metaphysical symmetry, the place where earth meets sky as conjoined elements, would have had a potent effect on the ancient imagination. The oak causeway perhaps symbolised a liminal pathway, a processional route, where ancient people could walk the line between life and death, suspended between earth and the heavens..yet the purpose of the oak causeway remains open to speculation. 

In his book, “Flag Fen, Life and Death of a Prehistoric Landscape”, archaeologist and Flag Fen founder, Francis Pryor noted that an equivalent site in Corlea, southern Ireland became swiftly inundated by the sea soon after it was constructed.  He states that far from being incompetent,  perhaps the ancient Corleans had built their causeway to be ritually submerged soon after construction. But for what purpose? 

Here , I make a tenuous connection between both places –  Flag Fen, and Doggerland.  Might it be that the Flag Fen causeway is one of several sites of special spiritual significance to the descendants of  ancient Doggerlanders? Could it be that these artificial islands were constructed to commemorate and celebrate their ancient homeland, preserved in perpetuity in their spiritual beliefs and oral records? Is it possible that the offerings in the Flag Fen waters were made to propitiate some powerful, malevolent water gods,  gods who destroyed the ancient land of their ancestors?

Given that there are several thousand years between the late Mesolithic, and the Bronze Age, you might be forgiven for doubting the fidelity of oral record over such vast period of time. How could a religious belief system survive the centuries, relatively unbroken,  simply through oral transmission? We forget perhaps that time is porous; ideas, memories, memes flow through it, occasionally unhindered and intact.  

As recently as 2015, Scientific American journal ran an article on the oral traditions of the Australian Aborigines. These aboriginal cultures are almost certainly the oldest surviving in human history. Upon analysis of some 16 aboriginal “myths”, a study revealed that their tales spoke of lost islands and post-ice age inundation with verifiable and phenomenal accuracy. The study concluded that far from being origin myths, the aboriginal tales of Dreamtime were factual reminiscences passed down faithfully from generation to generation over some 10,000 years, enmeshed in their ancestral psyche.   

The oral tradition not only provided the ‘scaffolding’ for ancient spiritual belief in the absence of the written word. It maintained social cohesion amongst tribal or clan groups, it provided a communal vision, perhaps armed with its own biases, intents and agendas. It provided social and environmental stability. How else could a leader or spiritual guide galvanise many hundreds or thousands of followers to undertake such herculean feats of engineering  as the Flag Fen causeway, unless they had a singular vision or belief, speculatively based upon the fear of retribution from angry sky or water gods?

It is true that over time, oral records can become lost, destroyed, or contaminated, particularly when indigenous cultures are disrupted in some way, either via conflict, or trade and exchange.  Indeed, the aboriginal oral tradition survived unblemished until the arrival of the European colonists in the late 18th century, and even now, the Dreamtime continues as a faithful record of cultural history. 

With all of the above in mind, would it be unreasonable to assume that the ancient peoples of Doggerland not only survived a traumatic and catastrophic inundation, but also, in a mass diaspora, made it to the seasonally flooded landscape around Flag Fen, a terrain not dissimilar to the ancestral home? 

As I walk across the spidery trails of the remoter parts of the fen, I acutely sense the revenants of ancient Doggerlanders;  hazy apparitions,  still walking a mystical path to commemorate lost ancestors. In walking,  the rhythmic thrum of my footfall is mimetised in the beat of some ancient shaman’s drum, slowly drawing that time to this. 

B G Nichols  /Eijls 2017

this essay first appeared in the printed version of Ernest Journal, edition number 7, May 2017

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