Brown Banks and White Cliffs – The Search for Lost Prehistoric Settlements

After a successful expedition in 2018, the second voyage in search of prehistoric landscapes and submerged settlements within the Brown Bank area of the southern North Sea will set off next week.  Marine experts will join archaeologists on the eleven-day voyage.   Researchers from the UK and Belgium will combine acoustic techniques and physical sampling of the seabed to unravel the topography and history of these landscapes and their inhabitants.  The scientists will be mapping a lost world.

Careful Analysis of North Sea Sediment Cores Looking for Evidence of Prehistoric Settlements

Seabed cores searched for signs of prehistoric settlement.

DNA sampling of sediment cores at the University of Warwick.

Picture Credit: Lost Frontiers

The expedition will be led by Dr. Tine Missiaen (Flanders Marine Institute – VLIZ), accompanied by scientists from Ghent University and the University of Bradford.  The voyage on board the Belgian research vessel “RV Belgica” takes place within the collaborative Belgian-UK-Dutch research project known as “Deep History: Revealing the palaeo-landscape of the southern North Sea”.  The research project aims to reconstruct the Quaternary history (roughly spanning the last half a million years) and human occupation of the wider Brown Bank area.  The project compliments the Bradford-led “Lost Frontiers” project, in which archaeologists are mapping the prehistoric North Sea landscape known as Doggerland.  The research is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).

Until sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, between 8-10,000 years ago, an area of land connected Great Britain to Scandinavia and the continent.  The Lost Frontiers team has identified thousands of kilometres of plains, hills, marshlands and river valleys, but despite all this mapping, evidence of human settlement has been difficult to find.

Home to Thousands of Stone Age People

Archaeologists have long suspected that the southern North Sea plain, right in the centre of Doggerland, may have been home to thousands of people.  Tantalising clues have been brought up by trawlers over the years, but the researchers hope to find more evidence to substantiate the population hypothesis.  A concentration of archaeological material, including worked bone, stone and human remains, has been found within the area around the Brown Bank, an elongated,  eighteen-mile-long (thirty-kilometres) sand ridge roughly sixty miles (a hundred kilometres) due east from Great Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast.  The amount of artifacts found suggests the presence of a Stone Age settlement.

Exploration Areas (May 2019) – The Brown Banks and the Southern River

Map showing the 2019 exploration areas.

The Southern River and the Brown Banks 2019 exploration areas.  Note: VC45 core location.

Picture Credit: Lost Frontiers/VLIZ/UGent

A Detailed Geophysical and Geotechnical Survey

In 2018, teams from the Flanders Marine Institute, Ghent University, the Dutch Geological Service and the University of Bradford collaborated on a detailed geophysical and geotechnical survey to identify prehistoric land surfaces, including ancient lakes and river valleys.  Sediment was extracted from the seabed to see if traces of human activity could be identified.

Thanks to the simultaneous use of different seismic sources, an uninterrupted image of the subbottom was obtained with unprecedented detail.  Combined with the study of sediment cores this allowed the scientists to refine the search for human activity to areas on the Brown Banks.  The May 2019 expedition will focus on detailed investigations in these areas, deploying VLIZ’s novel multitransducer echosounder, which uses sonar technology to obtain images of the subbottom with the highest possible resolution, and the collection of larger samples of sediment as well as video footage from the seafloor using VLIZ’s dedicated videoframe.

The Grab Sampler Ready to be Deployed

The grab sampler on the vessel ready to be deployed.

The grab sampler ready to be deployed.

Picture Credit: Belgian Navy

Exploring the “Southern River”

The team will also be visiting another area, known as the “Southern River”, a major prehistoric river valley flowing across a submerged headland off the East Anglian coast.  Previously surveyed by Lost Frontiers, the team believes that the estuary of the river, which may also have been flanked by white chalk cliffs, provides another potential area for prehistoric settlement.  The detailed survey of this area during this expedition will be the first ever undertaken to assess the archaeological potential of this part of the North Sea.

Commenting on the importance of this research, Professor Vincent Gaffney (University of Bradford), stated:

“In 2018, the team demonstrated that we can find prehistoric land surfaces on the Brown Banks that date from the Mesolithic period.  This provides the exciting prospect to return and recover larger volumes of sediment from those land surfaces, and find out what evidence they may contain of human settlement.”

The Survey Vessel – The RV Belgica

The RV Belgica of the Belgian Navy.

The RV Belgica (Belgian Navy).

Picture Credit: Belgian Navy

Doctor Tine Missiaen, (Flanders Marine Institute), added:

“The combined use of different state-of-the-art acoustic sources provides a major step forward in the identification and reconstruction of prehistoric land surfaces that now lie buried below the seafloor.  With the detailed investigations that will be carried out in May 2019 we hope to further unravel the unique history of these landscapes and their inhabitants.”

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