The dramatic impact of flooding on modern British communities was all too clear at the start of this year. But how did our prehistoric predecessors respond to the inundations that transformed their surroundings and drove them from their homes at the end of the last Ice Age? Jim Leary reports.
The recent flood of desperate migrants and refugees entering Europe from Syria and other war-torn countries (the largest movement of individuals and groups of people into Europe since the end of the Second World War) has dominated the news and provoked much debate. Less frequently discussed, perhaps, is what the impact that the loss of one’s homeland – that is, the loss of ‘place’ – might have on these uprooted groups.
Rising sea-levels may seem a modern concern, but we have been through it many times before – sea-levels changed by as much as 100-150m over hundreds of thousands of years as ice sheets came and went, with particularly dramatic variations in the centuries after the last Ice Age. At this time, the hunter-gatherers who occupied Mesolithic Britain lived through profoundly rapid environmental change, with sea-levels rising quickly to swallow vast tracts of land. Traces of these drowned landscapes can sometimes be seen today, as clusters of ancient tree stumps are periodically exposed in intertidal zones. Such finds have been recorded since at least the Middle Ages, when 12th-century chroniclers interpreted them as evidence for the Biblical Flood – an idea still entertained into the 18th and 19th centuries.
One such area – a prehistoric land larger than the United Kingdom, which 12,000 years ago joined Britain to mainland Europe in a wide, uninterrupted plain stretching from eastern England to the Netherlands – is known today as both Doggerland and, a term I prefer, Northsealand. It was an area that was lived in: people hunted in it, told stories, raised children, and fished there. Yet, by the 5th millennium BC, when the margins of the North Sea had swept close to their present coastline, this landscape had been entirely lost beneath the waves, with its inhabitants forced to move on as climate-change refugees.
Today, Northsealand’s submerged expanses are not easily accessible to archaeologists who would more usually walk through a site and analyse it on the ground. Modern technology provides some insights, however: seismic surveys and sonar pick out the lost landscape’s valleys, river channels, lakes, and estuaries, painting a picture of a watery, mostly low-lying, flat landscape dominated by rivers and dense deciduous woods; while sediment analysis fills in details of its environment, in the form of pollen and charcoal. Traces of its erstwhile inhabitants can also be seen on occasion – one such chance find lies in the Museum of Rural Life in Gressenhall, Norfolk: the Colinda point, a 14,000-year-old barbed point some 21cm long, which was fished out of the sea in a lump of peat by a trawler working 25 miles off the Cromer coast.
Far more extensive is the astonishing array of finds known from the Baltic Sea region: at Tybrind Vig, off the coast of Denmark, such stunning discoveries as textile fragments, wooden paddles, well-preserved Mesolithic dwellings – some with intact wall stakes and bark floors – have all been recorded on the sea floor, preserved ironically by the waterlogged conditions that led these communities to be abandoned in the first place. Over at Wismar Bay on the German Baltic coast, further evidence of how these groups sustained themselves – dugout canoes, fragments of paddles, fishing harpoons in various states of production, and part of an elm bow – was sealed by successive layers of mud and reed peat, clear signs of rising water levels.
More dwellings, some with sunken floors, together with a dugout canoe, fish traps (and an astonishing haul of some 10 million fish bones attesting to the success of such practices), as well as a number of burials – both human and canine – have been identified in the Netherlands, in the Rhine/Meuse delta. Finally, further traces, albeit more ephemeral, lie on both sides of the English Channel, scattered along the coasts of Brittany, Normandy, and Picardy. Closer to home, Bouldnor Cliff off the Isle of Wight has yielded surprising discoveries, including Britain’s oldest piece of string (CA 262). Above all, these finds bear witness to the fact that to these communities water was an ally not an enemy, a provider of lives and livelihoods.
The loss of familiar locales where a community’s legends were created and identities forged – a landscape that had a past, both mythical and historical, and was inscribed with paths and places that were meaningful to the people who lived within it – would have deeply troubled displaced communities. Northsealand would have represented not just a home but a storehouse of memories and ideas; place is evocative, closely tied to memory, and every woodland glade, coppiced tree or axe mark, every flint scatter or decaying house platform told of a history both personal and communal, a story of actions past and of lives lived in that place.
Taking a contemporary culture as an example of the significance granted to such landmarks, the eminent anthropologist Keith Basso wrote of the Western Apache in the USA’s Southwest that they used places as ‘vehicles for recalling useful knowledge’, and that natural features were therefore descriptively named and tied to lifeways, providing a sense of place and history. It seems likely that the Northsealand landscape would have been similarly imbued with meaning. The prehistoric sites that have been identified, whether settlements along the modern coastline or scatters of flint dredged up from the depths, indicate locations where lives were acted out by people who would have had an intimate knowledge of that area. They were places that invoked memories – no doubt with special significance to family histories and kinship ties – and people would have been attached to them.
Many of the natural features, too, such as the Cross Sands Anomaly – an isolated, flat-topped rock of chalk measuring 165m long and 13m high, which would have been visible for miles around – were potentially wrapped up in myths and stories. Perhaps these were animate places, where spirits dwelt or with which peoples’ origins were associated, or even the physical manifestations of powerful deities? Other cherished locations would have been traditional hunting grounds connected by a network of paths and travel routes. The forced separation from such sites must have been a terrible blow to communities’ sense of identity.
Read more in CA 314, on sale now.