Doggerland: lost world under the North Sea

Review by Bryony Coles

The blurb on the back of this book gives an uncommonly accurate description of its contents: ‘a popular science book that tells the story of one of the most important, but least known major archaeological sites in Europe’. Before turning to this story, though, I should declare that I have a bias in favour of most research to do with the land now under the North Sea, which I named ‘Doggerland’ in an article published in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society some 25 years ago.

Within the book there are contributions from some 30 authors, and the editors are to be congratulated on bringing them together to produce the resulting coherent narrative. The contents are structured in a familiar pattern, first setting the scene of a research project ranging from the shores of England to those of the Netherlands, from Happisburgh and Bouldnor Cliff to Yangtze Harbour and Hardinxveld. The aim is to find and test the pathways for exploration of the vast submerged landscape of Doggerland that lies between. Next comes the environmental, zoological, and archaeological evidence from the times before inundation, in chronological order, interspersed with a number of short case studies. For each of the five ‘Parts’ of the book, there are several short contributions on matters such as methodology, or personal reflections on the investigations, and accounts of specific discoveries and techniques of analysis. Overall, this provides the reader with a well-informed picture of the process of investigation, as well as an outline of the wide-ranging results.

Equal attention has been given to the many maps, diagrams, photographs, and drawings. This allows the reader to learn more from them than might otherwise be the case, as with the Late Palaeolithic metatarsal of an aurochs or bison found near Brown Bank. The bone had been decorated by humans some 13,000 years ago, indicating that people were on the land as well as large mammals. One series of maps, ‘Mapping a Drowning Land’, shows the changing extent of Doggerland over time; in the printing it has come out rather dark, maybe not quite what the authors intended and worth adjusting in any future reprint. Another illustration, the reconstruction of a Neanderthal male, has become quite familiar in the archaeological literature. It is based on one small piece of bone dredged up from the Middle Palaeolithic ‘North Sea Serengeti’, a good naming from one of the authors, which emphasises the dryland environment of the time. Here, the story of how the bone eventually came to be recognised, and then studied, makes one think of all the evidence that has been missed, and what can be done to record as much as possible of what is left, one of the main purposes of the overall project. The account of the international project Europe’s Lost Frontiers gives hope of further exploration.

The last part begins with a series of stories written by the collectors, the people who walk the beaches of the Netherlands and southern and south-east England looking for animal bones or antler points and worked stone. Most importantly, the collectors report their findings to their local museum or equivalent, and there is a short section for readers on how to do this, one way on the west side of Doggerland and a different way on the east side. The stories reveal just how diverse the collectors are on both sides, in terms of age and occupation and what attracts them to the shorelines, but almost all mention that feeling of being the first person to see a particular animal bone or artefact as it is revealed. I know that feeling, and I suspect that many readers know it too.

Towards the end, there is a brief and interesting survey of other drowned landscapes around the world, and of the sometimes unexpected ways the word ‘Doggerland’ is used, maybe naming cider and songs, maybe a setting for novels. There is too a thoughtful look to the future, stressing the importance of exploring, recording, and recovering the evidence locked up in Doggerland before it loses the protection of the sea to a host of other factors.

Both editors and contributors are to be congratulated on the resulting multifaceted narrative of how and where and why this land under the North Sea should become better known. I have deliberately not named any individuals as the outcome is the joint endeavour of the participants. Their plans for the future suggest there will be more.

Doggerland: lost world under the North Sea
Luc Amkreutz and Sasja van der Vaart-Verschoof (eds)
Sidestone Press, £35
ISBN 978-9464261134