Time Team Series 14
Britain's drowned world.
A Time Team Special.
Repeated 5th May 2008
Ten thousand years ago, before the melting ice from the end of the last Ice Age led to a huge rise in sea levels, the map of Britain looked very different to what it is today. In what is now the North Sea and the English Channel, there was an area of land the size of England itself – a great plain that stretched across from the east of Britain to what is now Denmark, northern Germany, Holland, Belgium and France. Meandering through it, the rivers Rhine, Thames and Seine and their various tributaries converged into an immense estuary that discharged into the Atlantic Ocean to the west.
As temperatures rose and the ice melted, the land joining Britain to the continent became home to great grasslands, forests, marshes and lakes. It was populated by a wide variety of animals, birds, fish – and humans. For a time 'Doggerland', as it has been dubbed, possessed rich natural resources that would have drawn people northwards from the European mainland. For a couple of thousand years, perhaps, before it began to be swamped by meltwaters from the end of the Ice Age, it would have been a mini-paradise for the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who dwelt there.
Then, in a relatively short period of time – fast enough for its effects to have been observed by the people living there – a very rapid rise in sea levels transformed the landscape utterly. The world those Mesolithic hunter-gatherers knew quite literally disappeared beneath the waves. By about 6,000 years ago, it had gone entirely. Britain was no longer part of Europe but an island, and its development began to diverge from that of the continent from which its latest wave of human occupants had arrived.
In this Time Team Special, Tony Robinson and the Team call upon the leading experts in the field to piece together the new discoveries and research that have rewritten the books on the ancient human occupation of Britain in recent years. It is a fascinating tale of the drowned world that once was part of Britain.
Ancient human occupation of Britain.
The earliest humans.
In 2001, ex-policeman and amateur archaeologist Mike Chambers made a discovery that would help push back the earliest known date for human activity in Britain by several hundred thousand years. For sticking out of the seabed off the Norfolk coast at Happisburgh he found a hand axe – one of the earliest artefacts made by humans ever discovered in northern Europe.
Located in the remains of an ancient forest, revealed only at low tide, the axe – like the forest – was dated to between 500,000 and 700,000 years ago. It was one of several key discoveries made very recently that have stunned archaeologists and other scientists studying the ancient human occupation of Britain, and transformed our understanding of the earliest human activity here in the space of less than a decade.
Mike Chambers' find coincided with the establishment of a large-scale research project, the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB), bringing together archaeologists and scientists from a range of different disciplines and organisations to investigate this neglected period of prehistory. As one of the scientists involved in the project remarked, in relation to mapping the lost land bridge between Britain and Europe, so crucial to our understanding of early human activity here, 'We know more about the surface of Mars than we do this.'
AHOB's work resulted in spectacular findings. As well as the Happisburgh site, where they found a second hand axe in 2004, a team of experts assembled by AHOB also investigated another site in East Anglia at Pakefield. This, too, had first been highlighted by amateurs, who had discovered what appeared to be a tiny fragment of worked flint in situ in the same beds as a large collection of animal bones.
Over the course of the next few years, AHOB's excavations turned up more than 30 such flint flakes and one flint core from four different contexts at Pakefield. This suggested that humans were regular visitors to a landscape that experts had previously believed to have been devoid of human activity.
The Pakefield flints were found in sediments that contained large quantities of microscopic mammal bones. It was these that enabled scientists to date the flints. In particular, AHOB used what is often referred to by scientists as the 'vole clock', which featured in a previous Time Team programme at Elveden in the 2000 series. Simon Parfitt identified a species of Mimomys vole among the Pakefield sediments. This is known to have died out in European Russia before MIS16, an extremely severe cold period, and together with other mammal deposits enabled AHOB to date the flint finds to around 700,000 years ago.
Since the oldest previous known evidence for a human presence in Britain dated from less than 500,000 years ago, this was a dramatic discovery – and it made headline news when it was first reported, in an article in Nature, at the end of 2005. Many of those reports referred to the people who made these tiny tools as the 'earliest Britons', although actually there is no direct line of descent between them and the people who inhabit these islands today.
In fact, as Chris Stringer explains in Britain's drowned world, there have been eight separate waves of colonisation of what is now Britain, seven of which have failed. These have coincided with the warmer periods between Ice Ages, with humans moving into Britain as the ice sheets retreated and being forced out again as they expanded. The latest (and, so far, uninterrupted) wave of occupation dates only from when temperatures began to rise again with the ending of the most recent Ice Age, starting about 13,000 years ago.
wow - if you read all that - Well done :P
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