Excavating the CA archive: Doggerland

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 2 August. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI342, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe Flatman
Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

In June, the Queen’s Birthday Honours for 2018 saw Vince Gaffney of the University of Bradford awarded an MBE ‘for services to archaeology’. Formal honours are a rarity in our community, and so all the more to be celebrated when they occur. And anyone who knows Vince was both delighted to hear this news and unsurprised by his response: ‘an individual’s career is actually a result of the labours of numerous students, researchers, and the many colleagues one works with over the years – and I would like to think that I am accepting this honour for them all’. But what of these students, researchers, colleagues, and crucially sites – who and where are they all? In the spirit of my ongoing mini-series of ‘great excavations’ reported in the pages of Current Archaeology down the years, I give here the story behind the MBE from one perspective, that of the great ‘site’ (if it can rightly be called that) of Doggerland.

As CA 207’s cover feature highlighted, Doggerland researchers were dealing with huge quantities of data.

As CA 197 (May/June 2005) outlined, ‘in the 14th millennium before present, the British Isles were linked to the continent by a vast plain under what is now the North Sea. Doggerland, as it has been called, probably supported a rich and varied collection of herd animals at this time, ranging on its plains, hills (now the banks such as the Dogger Bank), and lakes’. This was the first mention in Current Archaeology of a ‘site’ long hypothesised, but until advances in technology in the early 2000s, poorly understood. The name ‘Doggerland’ had first been proposed by another great archaeologist of great sites, Bryony Coles, back in 1998; her work on wetland sites, especially the Somerset Levels, is a ‘great excavation’ that I will return to in a future issue of CA.

The tale of the physical exploration of Doggerland comes later, in the serendipitous meeting of people and approaches under the auspices of a scheme that ran between 2002 and 2011, the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (ALSF). CA 207 (January/February 2007) featured Doggerland as its cover story, demonstrating for virtually the first time in public both the quality and the quantity of industry survey data that Vince and his team were dealing with. As CA 207 reported, this represented ‘a quantum leap in understanding the lost landscapes of the southern North Sea’, and the international significance of such work continues to this day: a decade later, the UK remains streets (seas?) ahead of nearly every other nation in terms of our analyses and management uses of such marine prehistory. Vince himself is quoted in CA 207, explaining that ‘as little as a year ago… the area was fundamentally terra incognita. Today, the sheer scale of the results is such that to call this “a Holocene landscape” seems totally inadequate when dealing with an area of study that is already the size of Wales. In most situations, it is a cliché to call the past “a foreign country”, but it’s hard to conceive the southern North Sea in any other manner. The research challenge – not to mention the conservation issue – is massive’.

CA 275 placed Doggerland in the wider context of the archaeology of the North Sea.

The next time CA ‘visited’ Doggerland was in a review of Vince Gaffney and his colleagues’ book Mapping Doggerland in CA 220 (July 2008). As the review comments: ‘this book is not for the scientifically challenged. It is an academic book located at the cutting edge of new scientific applications in archaeology… because the Doggerland research is so important, we must hope that a good popular book appears some time soon’. Vince and his team were clearly paying attention to the magazine (as all sensible archaeologists do): less than a year later, CA 231 (June 2009) reviewed precisely that popular book, Europe’s Lost World. This remains a model of rapid and accessible dissemination of scientific data, placing the complicated analyses of the project into a readable synthesis drawing widely from wider Mesolithic archaeology to put the people into the big picture of Doggerland. Europe’s Lost World rightly won a slew of prizes over the next few years, including ‘Best Book’ at the 2010 British Archaeological Awards.

Important discoveries at Happisburgh (CA 288) drew attention to the potential for Palaeolithic finds and human fossils from Doggerland.

Understanding an archaeological site doesn’t always ensure its protection. As CA 243 (June 2010) was reminded in a letter from a reader, the archaeology of Doggerland had been identified by marine-zone development, and – just as on land – development can have both benefits and costs: in this case, the threat of an offshore wind farm. CA returned to Doggerland in a different guise in issue 275 (February 2013), when Chris Catling placed the ‘site’ in context via an in-depth review of a book by another ‘wetland’ archaeologist, Robert Van de Noort, a former colleague of the Coles at the University of Exeter who is now a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Reading. Van de Noort’s book, North Sea Archaeologies, is an extraordinary work of synthesis ranging from Doggerland’s prehistory to the Viking Age and beyond (the book’s officially stated timespan is 10,000 BC to AD 1500), and while not the easiest of reads, is worth persevering with: it really places the data of people like Vince Gaffney from Doggerland into the wider context of human exploration and exploitation in the longue durée.

Going further into prehistory rather than forward in time, CA 288 (March 2014) then placed Doggerland’s deep past in context, examining the Palaeolithic discoveries of East Anglia (especially the internationally important site of Happisburgh). This was as part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, an interdisciplinary initiative spearheaded by Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum. The work here highlighted the ongoing undiscovered potential of Doggerland. Renewing what Gaffney had noted back in CA 207 in 2007, Stringer reported on their plans to investigate Happisburgh’s Site 5, which lies underwater: ‘this is a promising prospect as the bone preservation there… is better than anything we have found on shore’. The challenge – but also the rewards – of identifying comparable sites much further offshore remain in place in 2018. Similar research is occurring around the world at present, including off the coasts of the USA, Canada, and Australia, all with their own versions of the UK’s Doggerland, but as yet an intact site with datable or sampleable materials remains painfully elusive.

CA’s coverage of the Doggerland continues, most recently in an article on Mesolithic Britain in issue 331.

Current Archaeology made its most recent returns to Doggerland in CA 314 (May 2016), when Jim Leary reviewed the latest thinking on the site, and again in CA 331 (October 2017), when the magazine drew on Nick Ashton’s research on the Mesolithic archaeology of Britain. These two latest surveys of work relating to Doggerland are especially worth searching out in the CA archive. Leary provides a wonderful synopsis of archaeological discoveries from across Europe that fit into the larger landscape narrative here, ranging backwards and also right forward in time to contemporary narratives of loss and destruction of modern-day sites through flooding. Ashton, by comparison, shows the potential of data from one particular site – Star Carr (see also CA 282) – to inform our understanding of what life must have been like as a hunter-gatherer on Doggerland in the Mesolithic period.

There can be no doubt that Doggerland will return to CA in the future, hopefully when a specific located site is identified and explored. At that point, the full promise of the work first led by Vince and his team, and others since, will be fulfilled. Doggerland is an extraordinary ongoing story of scientific discovery, and so – MBE or no MBE – a truly ‘great’ site, worthy of popular acclaim. Congratulations to Vince and his team!

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Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 2 August. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI342’

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