While the Conservative party’s proposed dash for wind power is good news for the climate it could be bad news for archaeology, with rapid offshore windfarm development sealing off access to some of the best preserved and most complete evidence of early human communities in the world.
Much remains to be learned about the humans who roamed the planet before the advent of farming. “There’s a common perception that they were short, brutish and nasty, and that they had to keep moving and scrabbling around to feed themselves,” says Vince Gaffney, a landscape archaeologist at the University of Bradford.
Archaeological remains from this period – 15,000 to 8,000 years ago – are exceedingly rare because the global sea level was about 70 metres lower at that time, and most of the land that people would have inhabited is now underwater. “Britain was just a range of hills on the edge of Europe back then and the land that is now under the North Sea would have been the prime place to live, with plentiful fish, birds, animals and fresh water to be found along the rivers and coastlines,” he says.
This vast lowland region, known as Doggerland, was covered in forests and river valleys. When the sea level was at its lowest it stretched from southern England to Norway, covering 180,000 sq km – four times the size of the Netherlands. Today it lies under 15 metres or more of cold murky water, crisscrossed by cables and shipping lanes, and no one has yet undertaken the massive challenge of carrying out an archaeological excavation there. But a rich assortment of archaeological artefacts, dredged up by fishing boats or washed up on Dutch and English beaches, confirm that human occupation of the area goes back as far as 800,000 years.
Last year an exhibition in Leiden, in the Netherlands, showcased more than 200 of the treasures that have emerged, including a 50,000-year-old flint tool that demonstrated Neanderthal people were capable of fashioning sophisticated artefacts and thinking in a complex way. Also on show were exquisite stone and bone tools dating from 15,000-8,000 years ago, when the region was inhabited by hunter-gatherers.
Over the past decade Gaffney has been leading a project to translate seismic surveys from oil and gas exploration into detailed maps of the hills, rivers and valleys of this lost world. From the 85,000 sq km mapped so far, they have been able to pinpoint the most desirable places for human habitation and the most likely places for artefacts to have been preserved. In 2019 they joined a Belgian navy ship to conduct a detailed survey of a large ancient river system 25 miles off the coast of Cromer in Norfolk. “It was terrible weather and we didn’t have long to do our survey, but straight away we found a hammerstone – a 10,000-year-old flint core used to make other flint tools,” says Gaffney.
One of the questions Gaffney and his colleagues are itching to answer is how settled humans’ hunter-gatherer ancestors were. Mesolithic remains are few and far between but two major sites, Howick village on the Northumberland coast and Star Carr in North Yorkshire, hint that these communities may have led semi-sedentary lives 10,000 years ago. “We suspect that life might have been much more civilised than we imagine, and that these people had learned to preserve and store food,” says Gaffney.
They would also like to understand how much social interaction occurred between different communities and whether they traded goods. “This was a time of massive change for human society, coping with the challenge of climate change and sea level rise and moving from a hunter-gatherer-based economy to the foundations of agriculture,” says Gaffney.
For Gaffney and colleagues, the rapid development of offshore wind power presents an incredible opportunity – and a concern. “We’re now in the perfect position to explore these areas and extract sediment cores, but we need the funding to do it fast as the opportunity to pursue such research will effectively disappear over very large areas of the seabed, effectively forever, if action is not taken in advance of windfarm development,” he says.
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