Fears wind farms could hamper bid to uncover mysteries of Doggerland

An artist's impression of what Doggerland could have looked like in the Mesolithic period

An artist's impression of what Doggerland might have looked like in the Mesolithic period, which tool place between 9,000 and 6,000BC. - Credit: Wessex Archaeology

A renewed push for wind farms around our coastline could jeopardise research into early humankind.

Ministers are set to open up more of the North Sea to turbines to generate more renewable energy, to free us from depending on supplies from abroad after the conflict in Ukraine sent prices spiralling.

But archaeologists fear underwater cables could prevent them studying the flooded landscape where our ancestors once lived off the Norfolk coast.

Prof Vince Gaffney, from the University of Bradford's School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences

Prof Vince Gaffney, from the University of Bradford's School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, has been researching the mega-tsunami off Doggerland. Picture: University of Bradford - Credit: Archant

Prof Vince Gaffney, anniversary chair in landscape archaeology at Bradford University, said: "All those pylons are connected by cables and those cables have to be protected, so blundering archaeologists aren't welcome."

Prof Gaffney said developers have been helpful in handing over the results of their own underwater surveys and seabed samples.

But he fears large areas couple become out of bounds for research, which is carried out by dropping core samples or dredges down to the seabed.

The Scroby Sands Wind Farm off Great Yarmouth beach

Norwich South MP called for oil and gas workers to be given money to retrain to work in the renewables sector. - Credit: Denise Bradley

"It's one of the best-preserved prehistoric landscapes in the world," he said. "Britain has done more work than anyone else globally." 

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Thousands of years ago, after the last ice age, ancient people lived on an area known known as Doggerland - a low-lying region of land connecting East Anglia with mainland Europe.

As the climate changed between 15,000 and 6,000BC, their home became flooded by rising sea levels.

An image of the area known as Doggerland which connected the British Isles and the European continen

An image of the area known as Doggerland which connected the British Isles and the European continent. Norway has been excluded from the map. Image: MAX NAYLOR/CREATIVE COMMONS - Credit: Archant

Scientists have been studying what is now the seabed to find out more about this period.

Recent work has concentrated on two sites - the so-called 'southern river', around 25 miles off the coast at Cromer and the 'brown bank', a 20-mile ridge running along the seabed off the coast of Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

Prof Gaffney said the southern river was an estuary and a favoured habitat for hunter gatherers with its abundance of birds, fish and animals.

In May 2019, scientists set out to take samples on a ship funded by the European Research Council.

"The weather was awful," said Prof Gaffney. "We only had a couple of hours at this site.

"We dropped some dredges and we found a prehistoric artefact. This is the first artefact to be deliberately prospected.

doggerland finds

Items recovered from the seabed in 2019, including the hammerstone - Credit: Bradford University

"It was part of a broken stone tool, a hammer stone."

Hunter gatherers carried special stones so they could fashion themselves a knife, spearhead or other flint tool as needed.

Fragments of flint and charcoal have been recovered from the brown bank.

Elsewhere fishing boats have dredged up tools and the bones of prehistoric animals in their nets, while remains have also been found washed up on beaches in Norfolk and the Low Countries.

Norfolk's coast has been dubbed the Deep History Coast. In 1990, the largest intact skeleton of a mammoth ever found in the world was discovered in the cliffs at West Runton, near Cromer.

In 1999 a Bronze Age timber circle which became known as Seahenge was uncovered by storms at Holme, near Hunstanton.

Wendy George's photo of Seahenge which was discovered on Holme Beach.

Wendy George's photo of Seahenge which was discovered on Holme Beach. - Credit: Wendy George

In 2019, the oldest footprints ever to be found outside Africa were discovered at Happisburgh beach.

The five prints were thought to be 850,000 to 950,000 years old, and would have been made by Homo Antecessor - a human species that predates our own - Homo Sapiens.


What was Doggerland and who lived there?

Climate change is nothing new. Some 15,000 years ago, sea levels were 70ft lower than today.

Doggerland was a low-lying area of land at the bottom of what is now the North Sea.

It connected Norfolk with mainland Europe until it was flooded by rising sea levels 8,000 years ago.

During the last ice age - about 18,000 years ago - the majority of Britain was covered by ice but, as the climate warmed, Doggerland became an attractive environment for early humans.

A map illustrating the contraction of Doggerland over the millienia. Picture: UNIVERSITY OF BRADFORD

A map illustrating the contraction of Doggerland over the millienia - Credit: Bradford University

Temperate grassland replaced the frozen tundra and species such as mammoth, aurochs and red deer attracted hunters.

Over thousands of years, the climate warmed. As the ice melted and sea levels rose, Doggerland went on to become a land of rivers and inlets, archipelagos, lagoons, wetlands and marshes.

Mesolithic communities had rich hunting and fishing grounds. Experts now believe they had begun to develop farming methods, before Doggerland was submerged by a great Tsunami.