News and Views

Evidence of lost prehistoric settlement in the North Sea found

11 Jun 2019
It has long been suspected that the southern North Sea was once home to thousands of people.

A European research team, that included researchers from University College Cork, have found the first evidence of a lost prehistoric settlement in the North Sea.

Through chance finds by fishermen over many decades, it has long been suspected that the southern North Sea hides a vast landscape that once was home to thousands of people. An 11-day expedition by European scientists was undertaken to explore three sites of potential geological and archaeological interest in the southern North Sea. 

Researchers used acoustic techniques and physical sampling of the seabed to survey three of the high potential target areas.  High resolution images were obtained of the deposits beneath the seabed. A well-preserved Early Holocene land surface was discovered near Brown Bank where several large samples of peat and ancient wood were recovered. This evidence strongly suggests that a prehistoric woodland once stood in this area.

Another survey targeted a large river system identified in prior modelling. This area was focused on a zone where the river entered an ancient sea, and was suspected to be a location where evidence of human activity was more likely to be preserved. The survey recorded not only remains of peat but also nodules of flint which may originate from submarine chalk outcrops near the ancient river and coast. 

3D laser scan of the flint, with raked lighting to show surface features. (University of Bradford)

Further study has also revealed the first archaeological artefacts from the survey area. One was a small piece of flint that was possibly the waste product of stone tool making. The second was a larger piece, broken from the edge of a stone hammer, an artefact used to make a variety of other flint tools. As well as being evidence for flint tool production the hammer fragment derived from a large battered flint nodule would once have been part of a personal tool kit. 

“This is a remarkable discovery! We have developed a methodology for locating and recovering potential areas of prehistoric activity, which were once dryland but are now submerged below the waters of the southern North Sea. These fragments of flint hold the promise of future discoveries which will shed important light on human activity in past landscapes now lost to climate change and rising sea levels” commented Dr Benjamin Gearey, archaeologist at University College Cork.

The material recovered suggests that the expedition has revealed a well-preserved, prehistoric landscape which, based on preliminary inspection of the material, must have contained a prehistoric woodland. The recovery of stone artefacts not only demonstrate that these landscapes were inhabited but also that archaeologists can, for the first time, prospect for evidence of human occupation in the deeper waters of the North Sea with some certainty of success.  Work will now proceed to refine knowledge of the larger context of these finds and to plan further expeditions to explore these hidden prehistoric landscapes.

The May 2019 expedition led by Dr. Tine Missiaen from the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) involves an international team of scientists from Belgium (Ghent University, VLIZ) and the UK (University of Bradford). The voyage on board the Belgian research vessel “RV Belgica” takes place within the collaborative Belgian-UK-Dutch research project “Deep History: Revealing the palaeo-landscape of the southern North Sea” which is aimed at reconstructing the Quaternary history (roughly spanning the last 500.000 years) and human occupation of the wider Brown Bank area.



University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

College Road, Cork T12 K8AF