This summer, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (the National Museum of Antiquities) in Leiden, the Netherlands, opened its doors again with two new exhibitions. Doggerland: Lost World in the North Sea takes visitors back almost a million years to a land of ancient mammoths and Neanderthals – a land that is now covered by the North Sea – while Temples of Malta examines the prehistoric civilisation that constructed colossal megalithic structures across Malta, a thousand years before the first Egyptian pyramids were raised.
Into the depths of Doggerland
In 1931, North Sea fishermen made a remarkable discovery: a barbed antler artefact, sharp and deadly, stuck out of their trawl. The fishermen recognised the object as an ancient harpoon and brought it to Norwich Castle Museum, where it was discovered that the weapon dated back to the late Upper Palaeolithic, c.13,000 years ago.
The find suggested the existence of a lost and forgotten world, hidden under the waves of the North Sea. Throughout the Ice Ages, archaeologists theorised, there must have been a land bridge that connected England with Europe, which allowed early humans to cross and fish with their antler spears. But this land bridge was believed to be a bleak place, which was often soaked by crashing waves or battered by strong winds. Passable, though not habitable.
This image of an inhospitable landscape has now profoundly changed, thanks in great part to the research of British archaeologists and their Dutch colleagues from Leiden’s National Museum of Antiquities, among others. Additionally, a huge number of finds have come from beaches replenished with offshore sand from Doggerland. Many amateur archaeologists and palaeontologists comb these beaches for finds and fossils, contributing to new and sometimes groundbreaking discoveries: citizen science in optima forma. From the 1970s onwards, researchers have been piecing together these finds and using seismic surveys and digital mapmaking to reconstruct the prehistoric world of the North Sea. A world they called Doggerland.
For over a million years, Doggerland was among the most fertile regions of the European continent. A Nordic land of Eden, stretching out over 200,000km2. Green prairies, blue lakes, steppes, and lagoons linked the north of France and England to Denmark and the Netherlands. Doggerland was a hunter-gatherer paradise, with temperatures that, at times, rivalled those of ancient Egypt.
Doggerland even had its own Nile, for the Rhine and the Thames conjoined into a great, life-bringing river. When temperatures rose, rivers, such as the Meuse, were the aquatic kingdoms of hippopotamuses and water buffalo. During the Ice Ages, their presence was supplanted by reindeer, woolly rhinoceroses, mammoths, and fierce aurochs, who found excellent grazing grounds along the rivers. And, wherever they went, cave lions and Neanderthals followed them.
The oldest prints of our early ancestors were found at Happisburgh on the English west coast and date back to 950,000 BC, most likely created by Homo antecessor. But, by around 500,000 years ago, Neanderthals had established themselves in this area. Skilled survivors, they lived through drastic environmental changes by making sophisticated weapons and instruments of stone, antler, and bone, as well as adapting their technical skills to clothing and shelter. A rare find of a small flint knife with a handle of birch bark tar, created 50,000 years ago, shows off their ingenuity.
Water takes over
However, they were not left alone in Europe. Since at least 45,000 years ago, Neanderthals had to share the continent with early Homo sapiens. These dark-skinned, blue-eyed hunter-gatherers practised similar survival techniques to the Neanderthals. Although there is evidence for interbreeding, the Neanderthals eventually died out due to a combination of factors, and modern humans became the new masters of Doggerland in the millennia after 40,000 years ago.
By now, the area was increasingly affected again by the impact of climate change. Around 20,000 years ago, the North Sea was still 125m lower than it is today. However, rising temperatures before and in the Holocene – which began 11,650 years ago – melted ice caps, resulting in the volume of the oceans steadily increasing. Over the next thousand years, the North Sea level rose by one metre per century, leaving Doggerland gradually shrinking.
One effect of this climate change was reflected in the stomachs of early humans. When their steppes turned into wetlands and deciduous forests, animals and humans alike had to adapt to an aquatic diet: hunter-gathers focused on fishing, hunting beavers, otters, and waterfowl, and collecting wild apples, hazelnuts, walnuts, and berries from the trees. But despite this bounty, the rising temperatures heralded an impending disaster.
Two catastrophic events set in motion the end for Doggerland. Around 6400 BC, Lake Agassiz, a 300,000km2 glacial lake in Canada – larger than Doggerland itself – flooded into the Atlantic Ocean. In just 200 years, the North Sea level increased by 4m, effectively washing away the shores of Doggerland by rising 2cm a year. In some places, water flooded tens of kilometres inland, ripping Doggerland to pieces and turning Britain into an island. Between 6225 and 6170 BC, another disaster followed. The Storegga Slide, an underwater landslide off the coast of Norway, caused a tsunami of biblical proportions. Waves 20m-high struck the north coast of Iceland and equally catastrophic waves hit Doggerland, leaving devastation in their wake.
Afterwards, what was left of Doggerland was steadily submerged by the sea. Animals were probably the first to leave the drowning isles, followed by humans. One island, at the current elevation of the Doggerbank, was finally submerged last in 5800 BC. Despite the disappearance of Doggerland, abundant evidence of this lost world survives today, hidden beneath the waves. The exhibition highlights the huge quantity of finds recovered from the region from the Pleistocene and Holocene eras, including a vast array of bone, antler, and even wooden objects that were preserved after becoming embedded in peat and clay on the seabed. Such artefacts offer a welcome addition to the flint-dominated assemblages found on land.
Rise of Malta
The disappearance of Doggerland coincided with the birth of a new civilisation in southern Europe. Around 5900 BC, the first farmers set foot on Malta and the neighbouring islands of Gozo and Comino. Unlike the hunter-gathers of Doggerland, the early occupants of Malta relied on cultivating land and herding cattle, sheep, and goats.
Imported resources like flint, obsidian, alabaster, and greenstone from Italy arrived with the farmers, who also took advantage of the limestone subsoil on Malta itself. As early as 3600 BC they were constructing colossal megalithic structures, some standing up to 7m high. The massive stone formations of Tarxien and the Ta’ Ħaġrat temple complex were constructed using trilithons similar in design to those used in the Dutch Hunebeds (built 3400-3200 BC, see CWA 98) and at Stonehenge in England (where the first structures date back to 4000 BC), reflecting the rich architectural traditions emerging around Europe at this time. In addition to displaying stone fragments from several Maltese temples and tombs, the exhibition uses clever scale models and creative camera techniques to offer an immersive view and give visitors a sense of the vast scale of these immovable structures, situated thousands of kilometres away.
One of Malta’s most-famous megalithic sites is the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, a subterranean sanctuary where, in 1902, excavations revealed the remains of burial chambers and the bones of slaughtered animals. The site appears to have been designed as an underground cemetery, which expanded over the course of centuries to include a network of crypts. Some of the rooms were beautifully decorated, and the animal bones and other grave goods found here suggest that ritual acts may have been carried out by priests in this hallowed place. Excavations of other funeral complexes, conducted on Gozo between 1987 and 1994, provided further insights into Maltese society. Digging at the Xagħra Stone Circle, which dates back to 4100 BC, not only revealed the remains of 400 to 800 buried men and women, but also a set of stone figures, one of which is on display in the exhibition. At first, archaeologists assumed that these sculptures represented the members of a family put to rest in the burial chambers. But recently another hypothesis has been put forward, suggesting that the stone figures may have portrayed the different stages of one person’s life – a prominent theme in many cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.
Three thousand years later, when the early Maltese were long gone, the echoes of such cultural traditions still resonated in ancient Greek storytelling. For example, ideas about the different stages of human life feature in the Classical myth of Oedipus. This features a bloodthirsty sphinx that terrorises the people of Thebes by stopping those unfortunates who come into his sight and subjecting them to a life-or-death quiz. Only those who can solve the Sphinx’s riddle are free to go. But, alas, all of them are devoured, because they fail to give the Sphinx the proper response to his question: ‘What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?’. Only Oedipus possesses both the courage to confront the Sphinx and the wisdom to supply the correct answer: ‘Mankind’. ‘As’, Oedipus reasons, ‘humans crawl on hands and feet in their early days, walk upright when they grow up and then, when they come to a respectable age, use a walking stick for support.’
Ideals from antiquity
Other anthropomorphic sculptures on Malta and Gozo seem to have been created with the intent of symbolising cultural values. The period between 3600 BC and 2500 BC saw a remarkable increase in sculpted corpulent figures, crafted out of stone, alabaster, or clay. These artistic figurines were originally termed ‘fat ladies’ by archaeologists, as they were assumed to be women. However, many of them appear to have been designed without reproductive organs, and purposely so. The discovery of the ‘sleeping lady’, another figurine found at the H—al Saflieni Hypogeum, shows that early Maltese artists were capable of crafting obviously female-like statues when they wanted to. For this reason, archaeologists have questioned whether or not these ‘fat ladies’ were instead meant to represent personified prosperity, fertility, and wealth.
This hypothesis is supported by findings on the diet of the early Maltese population. The islanders mostly ate starchy vegetables – not a maker of fat – and would have been toughened agricultural labourers, often working in the burning sun. On top of that, they had to find time for communal projects like constructing gigantic monolith structures, so it is likely that most of the early inhabitants of Malta did not share the generous proportions of these statues. The creation of the figurines may reflect the views of a society where obesity was something to strive for, or be associated with the ritual or symbolic aspects of their lives, possibly connected to the temples, where many of the sculptures were found.
The early Maltese civilisation that produced this rich material culture came to an end around 2500 BC, rather suddenly and for reasons still unknown. Signs of deliberate destruction discovered on megalithic structures and sculptures suggest that the downfall may have been related to a violent attack, perhaps by the forebears of the Sea Peoples, the infamous marauders who came to be held responsible for the destruction of ancient civilisations in the Mediterranean and Middle East a thousand years later. Then again, it is possible that the civilisation’s collapse was related to the exhaustion of the soil caused by their monocultural farming practices, which would have resulted in seasonal droughts and decreasing productivity, taking a devastating toll on society. On small islands such as Malta, Gozo, and Comino – which together totalled no more than 316km2 – any form of political turmoil could quickly mean the end of society.
Regardless of its cause, the fall of the temple-builders gives pause for reflection. The creation of phenomenal monuments and extraordinary art during this period points to a society that drew its strength from teamwork and mutual trust: an example, perhaps, for future generations.
Doggerland: Lost World in the North Sea/Temples of Malta Address: National Museum of Antiquities, Rapenburg 28, 2311 EW, Leiden Open: until 31 October 2021 Admission: entry included in general museum admission (€12.50 for adults); advance booking required Website: www.rmo.nl/en Curator-led guided video tours of both exhibitions are available with English subtitles on the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden’s YouTube channel.
ALL images: © Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, unless otherwise stated.