1. The research vessel used by the team is the RV Belgica.

In search of the drowned world

British and Belgian scientists working 25km off the east coast of England in the region known as 'Doggerland' have discovered evidence of human habitation. Chance finds made by fishermen working in the southern part of the North Sea over many years have long prompted archaeologists to suspect the area was once occupied by a sizeable community of humans. Now this area is being systematically assessed and, for the last two years, British scientists have also been using data provided by commercial bodies, including oil and gas companies, to recreate the flooded landscape of the area and to investigate its past.

2. The route of the RV Belgica detailing areas of the survey.

An 11-day expedition, undertaken earlier this year by scientists from the University of Bradford, VLIZ – the Flanders Marine Institute – and the University of Ghent, explored three sites of interest which yielded exciting results. 'A piece of flint debris and a hammerstone were recovered and showed that humans were making tools in what was a southern river area off the East Anglian coast. It's likely that there would have been an occupation site there – possibly a cluster of three or four Mesolithic huts,' reports Dr Simon Fitch of the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford.

Images from the seabed have confirmed the presence of a well-preserved Early Holocene land surface beneath another area known as 'Brown Bank'. Samples of peat and ancient wood found point to the existence of prehistoric woodland. Here, also, was a large river system and an estuary which suggests that it may well have been suitable for human habitation.

3. The Southern River showing an image of the valley and seismic survey lines over the valley.

The team involved are delighted with the findings. 'In a way it's the start of a new chapter in archaeology. We can finally explore these offshore submerged prehistoric sites and integrate this missing piece of the puzzle into our archaeological understanding of the Mesolithic period which until now has solely relied on a terrestrial picture,' explains Fitch.

Submergence of the land between the British Isles and mainland Europe was a linear process which took place over a long period of time. 'Broadly speaking,' says Fitch, 'the larger landscape started to be submerged about 12,000 years ago and continued until about 7500 years ago.'

4. An artist's reconstruction of life in a human settlement on the estuary in the paleo-landscape.

The research project is named Deep History: Revealing the Paleo-landscape of the south North Sea and it aims to reconstruct the history of the Quarternary Period (roughly the last 500,000 years) and the human habitation of the wider Brown Bank area. With its busy seaways and often inclement weather, the area presents particular challenges for exploration. Yet with the aid of modern scientific techniques and the Belgian naval vessel used for the expedition, the mapping of the topography of the area has been able to be carried out.

'We used seismic surveys to map the larger landscape and determine its features – like coastlines and rivers – and selected areas which were the most likely to be interesting to Mesolithic people. We then sample that landscape with Vibrocores [sediment sampling equipment] to determine the paleo-environment. All of this information is put into computer models at Bradford and drawing on archaeological knowledge, the areas of habitation are predicted and then tested with further coring and grab sampling.'

Work will continue on the study of the finds and paleo-environmental samples gathered during the survey and further research cruises are planned for next year. (https://lostfrontiers.teamapp.com/)

Diana Bentley