1. Where core samples were taken on the submerged Brown Bank off the Norfolk coast are shown: 2016 (green dots) and 2017 (pink dots).

Europe's lost frontiers

Half way through a five-year programme, Europe's Lost Frontiers has had a major success. The project, which
is researching Doggerland (the submerged lands of the North Sea that connected Britain to the Continent)
has been gathering evidence of human settlements from dredging and trawling around the Brown Bank, a 30km-long sand ridge, 100km east of Great Yarmouth.

'The concentration of archaeological material, including bone, stone and human remains, suggests that these may derive from, or cluster around, a prehistoric settlement close by,' says the project's Principal Investigator, Professor Vincent Gaffney of Bradford University. 'However, this remains an hypothesis, as no settlement has ever been located in this area.'

Mapping is an extensive part of the pioneering project, but looking for evidence of prehistoric communities in an area the size of many European countries is like looking for a needle in a haystack, says Professor Gaffney, who has narrowed down the search: 'Sedimentary cores have been collected down major valleys; as you go down the valley, it goes back in time. Fish, water, reeds – rivers and lakesides provided the right conditions for the prime areas of settlement. We don't know exactly where settlements were, but they can't not be there.'

Funded by a European Research Council Advance Grant and running until 2020, part of the project has been a two-year marine expedition to identify the possible location of prehistoric, submerged settlements around the area of the Brown Bank within the southern North Sea, and is run in conjunction with Ghent University and Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ).

2. Mesolithic/Neolithic finds and artefacts from the Brown Bank, a submerged area under the North Sea: A) polished stone axe or mace head; B) perforated deer antler socketed adze or axe head; C) human mandible.

Core samples penetrating up to six metres provide clues about topography, plants and animals that existed from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic. These are now being processed: sedimentary DNA at Warwick; pollen count in Cork; imaging and modelling in Bradford and at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China.

Leading the world in this kind of research, the next stage of the project will be to explore an area to the north, which Professor Gaffney believes may be a submerged lake. 'If it is possible to undertake fieldwork that can locate prehistoric settlement on the Brown Bank, this would be a major event,' says Professor Gaffney. 'Until now the majority of Doggerland has been terra incognita in archaeological terms. If we can begin to locate settlement across the currently empty map of the Doggerland, we would open a new chapter in archaeological exploration.'

Europe's Lost Frontiers has also been providing accurate maps for the submerged land between Britain and Ireland. In February sediment from cores taken from 20 sites around Liverpool Bay and Cardigan Bay by the Irish Research Vessel RV Celtic Voyager under the direction of the Centre for Environmental Research Innovation and Sustainability (CERIS) in the Department of Environmental Science at IT Sligo. Outcomes of the research will also allow reconstruction and simulation of the palaeo-environments of the Irish Sea.

'We will be able to reconstruct through sedaDNA both sides of the story of the rising tides in the Mesolithic around the UK and gain a more complete insight into those early stages of Neolithisation during which Britain became an island nation,' says Professor Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick.

Professor Gaffney adds: 'These samples are suspected to hold crucial information regarding the first settlers of Ireland and adjacent lands along the Atlantic corridor.' Meanwhile, in the USA, archaeologists have located a 7000-year-old Native American ancestral burial site off the coast of Florida. With advances in DNA analysis, further finds from inundated palaeo-landscapes can be expected to reveal more.

Roger Williams