The first archaeological artefacts found during the search for lost prehistoric settlements in the North Sea


11.06.2019

Dr Martin Bates, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David has been working with a team of researchers on an 11-day expedition in the North Sea.

Brown Bank

Figure 1 Equipment used on the RV Belgica. From right to left. Parametric echosounder, sparker, grab, and videoframe (© Simon Fitch, Europe’s Lost Frontiers).

Last month, the expedition by European scientists from Belgium and Britain – including UWTSD’s Dr Martin Bates - was undertaken to explore three sites of potential geological and archaeological interest in the southern North Sea.  

Through chance finds by fishermen over many decades, it has long been suspected that the southern North Sea hides a vast landscape that once was home to thousands of people. Over the past two years the British team has been recreating the drowned landscape using data provided by oil and gas companies, windfarm developers and the coal board.  The modelled landscape contains areas with a higher likelihood of past human activity, locations where evidence for these activities might more likely be found.

Based at the University’s Lampeter campus, geoarchaeologist Dr Martin Bates has a research focus on soils and sediments from archaeological sites and the geoscience of submerged landscapes.

“This is a very exciting project to be involved in,” says Dr Bates. “Here at Lampeter our job is to examine all the cores that have been drilled into the seabed and reconstruct the geology of the changing environment over the last 100,000 years.  From this information we can pinpoint likely places on, or beneath, the seabed which might have evidence for activity by our ancestors living in this now lost landscape.”

Prospecting this drowned landscape in search of the evidence of people is a challenging activity, as the North Sea is not only one of the busiest seaways in the world but the weather often makes it inhospitable. Further, multiple utilities cross the area and visibility under water is often limited.  Given these challenging conditions, researchers on the Belgian vessel, RV Belgica, used acoustic techniques and physical sampling of the seabed to survey three of the high potential target areas.  The team used both traditional geophysical techniques and a novel new technique with a parametric sonar. This enabled the highest resolution images to be obtained of the deposits beneath the seabed. Although the survey was heavily impacted by poor weather, confirmation of the occurrence of a well-preserved Early Holocene land surface was made near Brown Bank (Area C in figure 2) where several large samples of peat and ancient wood were recovered. This evidence strongly suggests that a prehistoric woodland once stood in this area.

Brown Bank

Figure 2 Route of the RV Belgica showing areas of detailed survey (Map data ©2019 Google and VLIZ/Europe’s Lost Frontiers).

Survey over Area B targeted a large river system identified in the model landscape.  This area was focused on a zone where the river entered an ancient sea, and was suspected to be a location where evidence of human activity was more likely to be preserved. The survey recorded not only remains of peat but also nodules of flint which may originate from submarine chalk outcrops near the ancient river and coast. These findings are supported by the results of vibrocores acquired in the area for the Europe’s Lost Frontiers project. 

Further study has also revealed the first archaeological artefacts from the survey area (figure 3 and 4). One was a small piece of flint that was possibly the waste product of stone tool making. The second was a larger piece, broken from the edge of a stone hammer, an artefact used to make a variety of other flint tools. As well as being evidence for flint tool production the hammer fragment derived from a large battered flint nodule would once have been part of a personal tool kit.  Research is still ongoing into this artefact and its context within the landscape.

Brown Bank

Figure 3. The Southern River showing an image of the valley (A), and seismic survey lines over the valley (B) (© Europe’s Lost Frontiers/VLIZ)

Brown Bank

Figure 4 Stone artefacts from the area of the Southern River estuary. Bottom left is a small fragment of flint debitage. The remining photographs and 3D scan images are of a larger fragment of flint, probably used as a hammerstone (photographs and 3D scan data by Tom Sparrow, Visualising Heritage. University of Bradford)

In the relatively short period of time available for survey and sampling around the Southern River and the Brown Bank, the project methodology has clearly demonstrated its value. Marine geophysics has been used to map the topography of these lost lands and identify areas where prehistoric sediments may exist. Where these are accessible and are within areas of the landscape that are likely to be attractive for human occupation or use, sediments can be extracted for careful examination and with a higher expectation of making finds than was previously possible. 

The material recovered suggests that the expedition has revealed a well-preserved, prehistoric landscape which, based on preliminary inspection of the material, must have contained a prehistoric woodland.  The recovery of stone artefacts not only demonstrate that these landscapes were inhabited but also that archaeologists can, for the first time, prospect for evidence of human occupation in the deeper waters of the North Sea with some certainty of success.  Work will now proceed to refine our knowledge of the larger context of these finds and to plan further expeditions to explore these hidden prehistoric landscapes.

Brown Bank

Figure 5: Probable reconstruction of the lost, prehistoric landscape around the Southern River (© Europe’s Lost Frontiers)

 

Note to Editor

The May 2019 expedition led by Dr. Tine Missiaen from the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) involves an international team of scientists from Belgium (Ghent University, VLIZ) and the UK (University of Bradford). The voyage on board the Belgian research vessel “RV Belgica” takes place within the collaborative Belgian-UK-Dutch research project “Deep History: Revealing the palaeo-landscape of the southern North Sea” which is aimed at reconstructing the Quaternary history (roughly spanning the last 500.000 years) and human occupation of the wider Brown Bank area.

The project complements the Bradford-led “Europe’s Lost Frontiers” project. Led by Professor Vincent Gaffney, archaeologists from the team are exploring the early Holocene, North Sea landscape known as Doggerland.  This project received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (ERC funded project No. 670518 LOST FRONTIERS). The project team also includes researchers from the Universities of St Andrews, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Nottingham in Ningbo China, Warwick, Birmingham, University College Cork and the Natural History Museum.

Follow the action on Twitter @BrownBank2018

The Belgian federal research vessel Belgica is owned by the Federal Science Policy Office (BELSPO) and operated by the Belgian Navy in cooperation with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences-Operational Directorate Natural Environment (RBINS-OD Nature)(http://odnature.naturalsciences.be/belgica/en/)."

The Renard Centre of Marine Geology research unit of the Department of Geology (Ghent University) is specialized in the development and use of seismic methods and geophysical techniques, in continental margin geology, limnogeology, natural hazards and Quaternary geology (https://www.ugent.be/we/geologie/nl/onderzoek/organisatie/rcmg; http://www.rcmg.ugent.be/).

The Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) is a centre for marine and coastal research. As a partner in various projects and networks it promotes and supports the international image of Flemish marine scientific research and international marine education (www.vliz.be/en). The paleo-landscape research forms part of the VLIZ research topic Seascapes Past & Future and adds to the expertise VLIZ is developing with regard to paleo-landscapes and fossil remains in the southern North Sea (www.vliz.be/en/palaeolandscape-research/).  

Europe’s Lost Frontiers is an ERC Advanced Research project is supported by funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme ( ERC funded project No. 670518 LOST FRONTIERS), and is  run from the University of Bradford. Lost Frontiers studies the inundated landscapes of the southern North Sea using archaeo-geophysics, molecular biology and computer simulation to develop novel approaches for the study of past environments, ecological change and the transition between hunter gathering societies and farming within the inundated landscapes of Doggerland and North West Europe more widely (https://lostfrontiers.teamapp.com/)

Further Information

For further information, please contact Sian-Elin Davies, Principal Communications and PR Officer on 01267 676908 / 07449 998476 sian-elin.davies@uwtsd.ac.uk