Doggerland, The Prehistoric Land Swallowed by the Sea

Today it may be hard to imagine a time that Great Britain wasn’t an island. However, it is widely believed that if you travelled back in time to 6500BC, this would not have been such a strange idea.

An area referred to as Doggerland, now sunk beneath the waves of the North Sea, once linked Britain to continental Europe. Up until the mid Pleistocene era, a period spanning from 2.58 million years ago to 11,700 years ago, Britain formed a large peninsula connected to continental Europe, as opposed to its own distinct land mass. 

The ancient land covered a considerable area and studies suggest that it stretched all the way from the east coast of Britain to the western coast of Germany, connecting also the Netherlands and Denmark at the Jutland peninsula.

Doggerland approximately 11,000 years ago during the onset of the Holocene Epoch. The red outlines delineate the present-day coastlines of Great Britain and Europe. Credit: (Olav Odé/ National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, Netherlands)

The ancient land gained its name in reference to the Dogger Bank, a large sandbanks located in the North Sea. Located just over sixty miles off the coast of England, the Dogger Bank is thought to have once been above sea level and part of the wider area of Doggerland. 

Read More: Neolithic Boulder of National Importance Found in Dorset

Doggerland was home to a variety of prehistoric plants and animals and provided rich hunting grounds that attracted the hunter-gatherer communities of the Mesolithic period.

Relics of a past world have been dredged from the ocean floor, giving glimpses into what Doggerland may have once looked like and what life was like for the prehistoric creatures and people that called it home.

Dogger Bank
Dogger Bank

While this ancient landscape may have since been reclaimed by rising seas and fallen victim to ancient tsunamis, modern efforts have been made to map Doggerland and create models of what this fascinating ancient land once may have looked like. 


What Did Doggerland Look Like?

While it may now be underwater, before Doggerland was swallowed by the sea, it was home to a variety of prehistoric creatures and played host to a range of diverse ecosystems.

Read More: The Mass Viking Burial Pit on the South Dorset Ridgeway

Rivers, lakes, marshes, woodlands, and temperate grasslands all made up the rich biomes of the ancient landscape. Roaming these environments were some of the creatures now synonymous with the prehistoric world.

Hunting Woolly Mammoth

Herds of mammoths once trekked across the grasslands of Doggerland, aurochs (a species of ancient cattle) and deer provided rich hunting stock, and even evidence of ancient lion species has been found in the Doggerland area.

Doggerland was no stranger to hunter-gatherer groups either, with evidence of early human communities.

Read More: Ridgeways, our Prehistoric Road System Before Roman Roads

These communities were lured by the prospect of a rich bounty of game, and the area is thought to have once been the location of some of the richest hunting and fishing grounds in all of Mesolithic Europe.

It has been posited that sections of modern rivers, including the Seine, Thames, and Rhine, combined to form massive waterways that flowed across the ancient environment. 

However, existing during the Last Glacial Maximum, also known as the Last Glacial Coldest Period, Doggerland was no warm oasis. Much of the land was covered in areas of glacial ice and tundra. The sea level was also estimated to have been 120 metres lower than current levels. 

Mammoth, Prehistoric Footprints, and Ancient Antlers 

Sailors and fishermen have found an interesting array of ancient artefacts on the seafloor that once would have been Doggerland. In the 1930s, the trawler Colinda hauled an ancient barbed antler out of the sea off the coast of England.

A 13,000-year-old aurochs or bison bone etched with a zigzag design was recovered near Brown Bank. (National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, Netherlands)

The antler was found to have dated all the way back to between 4000 -10,000BC. It was fashioned by Mesolithic people into a barbed point, likely to be used as a fishing implement. Other prehistoric relics have been found on the ocean floor in the area that once constituted Doggerland, including textile fragments and remnants of ancient dwellings. 

Read More: Ancient Trackways: Walking in the Footsteps of Neolithic People

In 2015, evidence of prehistoric forests were discovered by a group studying marine life. Ancient weapons and tools have been pulled from the sea bed, as have remains of prehistoric lions and mammoths. Neanderthal skull fragments have even been found off the coast of Zeeland. These skull fragments were estimated to be more than 40,000 years old.

The jawbone and teeth of a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer, who resided in Doggerland approximately 8,300 years ago, have been remarkably preserved due to the oxygen-depleted conditions found beneath the North Sea.. Image Credit: Paul Storm

Hammerstone flint from the prehistoric era was also found on the seabed 25 miles off the coast of Norway. As well as artefacts, footprints have been found preserved at the bottom of the North Sea.

Thirty nine prints created by nomadic people in the Mesolithic period have been uncovered, offering a glimpse into the life of the ancient communities of Doggerland.

What Happened to Doggerland? 

As the world began to warm and the water trapped in glaciers and ice sheets was released by a hotter climate, Doggerland began to become increasingly inundated by rising water.

Read More: Meare Heath Trackway: A Bronze Age Structure

As rivers swelled and sea levels rose, this vast prehistoric land began to slowly disappear. By around 6500BC, Doggerland had largely slipped below the waves, dividing Britain from continental Europe.

Wolly Mommonth
Woolly Mammoth skull discovered by fishermen in the North Sea (“Doggerland”). Ireland. It was a very large Bull who roamed some 30.000 to 40.000 years ago. The skull is currently located in the Celtic and Prehistoric Museum, Slea Head Route, Kilvicadownig, Ventry, Ireland. Credit: Ogmios

An area of high land in Doggerland, known as the Dogger Bank, remained above the encroaching seas for another five hundred years, finally being submerged by 5000BC.  During the time that Doggerland was disappearing, sea levels were rising at an alarmingly rapid rate.

Read More: Iron Age Trackways That You Can Still Walk Today

It has been posited that sea levels rose at a rate of up to two metres every hundred years, meaning low lying communities stood little chance against the encroaching sea. One of the final blows to this prehistoric landscape has been posited to have come in 6200BC in the form of a tsunami.

Hunter gatherer’s camp at Irish National Heritage Park Exhibit showing how a 7000 B.C. campsite of Mesolithic peoples would look like.

The Storegga Slide, an underwater landslide that occurred off the Norwegian coast has been hypothesised to have triggered a catastrophic tsunami.

Over 3000 square kilometres of debris collapsed into the Norwegian Sea, causing a devastating ancient tsunami in the North Atlantic Ocean. Studies have found that the tsunami triggered by the Storegga Slide sent water 18 miles inland when it hit the coast of modern day Scotland.

Read More: The Forgotten Roman Roads

The tsunami from the Storegga Slide likely inundated the collection of islands that Doggerland had already been reduced to by this point by rising water levels.

While the tsunami was not the primary reason for the disappearance of Doggerland, it would have been devastating for any neolithic communities still living on remnants of the waterlogged land. Estimates of the death toll from the ancient tsunami rose into the thousands.

Prehistoric Refugees of a Climate Crisis

As Doggerland slipped below rising seas and was pummelled by prehistoric tsunamis, the Mesolithic people that had come to call this once highly prosperous area home were forced to find higher ground.

Many people were thought to have migrated to higher land in Britain and the Netherlands.

Storegga tsunami deposits (grey upper layer), bracketed by peat (dark brown layers), taken at Maryton on the Montrose Basin, Scotland

As temperatures rose, areas of high ground that were previously inhospitable due to freezing temperatures became more desirable for establishing new settlements. Rising water levels also forced many animals to abandon the doomed tract of land and many Mesolithic hunter-gatherer communities would have followed game to more favourable lands. 

Read more: Crop Marks, Natures’ History Trail

In current times, scientists have warned that those living on the coastal edges of Doggerland, and in coastal communities around the globe, may soon face a similar predicament as those in the Mesolithic period that settled on Doggerland in ancient times.

The melting of polar ice caps due to climate change in the modern era threatens to flood low lying communities around the world, threatening to impact the billions of people that live within sixty kilometres of a modern coastline. 

Mapping an Ancient Land 

In the last few decades there have been efforts to map Doggerland and digitally recreate what this prehistoric landscape may have looked like. Seismic survey data has been a useful tool in creating digital images of Doggerland and constructing models of what Doggerland once looked like.

So far, models depicting vast areas of land have been made, with close 18,000 square miles of the ancient landscape having been reconstructed in digital models. 

Read More: The Largest Pre-Historic Hillforts you Should Visit

Some of the ancient features of Doggerland’s prehistoric landscape have been identified and named during archeological investigations. A series of dunes rising above where the Shotton River once flower have been dubbed ‘the Spines’.

Similarly, a basin formed between two large sandbanks has gained the moniker ‘The Outer Silver Pit’, while an area of upland is often referred to as ‘Dogger Bank’. 

The Land that Was 

Now sunk beneath the waves, Doggerland was once a prosperous prehistoric landscape. It was home to a vast array of ancient plants and animals, with everything from mammoths to ancient lions once walking its shores.

Following a trail of rich fishing and hunting grounds, Mesolithic hunter-gatherer tribes settled on across this ancient tract of land and built productive communities that endured and thrived for centuries. As the world warmed and water levels rose, fuelled by the melting of glaciers and the thawing of ice sheets, Doggerland began to slip beneath the waves.

Already a collection of islands by 6200BC, a prehistoric tsunami triggered by the Storegga Slide brought further catastrophe to any Mesolithic settlers still remaining on the remnants of a land being slowly swallowed by the sea.

The yellow numbers give the height of the tsunami wave as indicated by tsunamis studied by researchers.

In modern times, Doggerland has captured the imagination of archeologists, palaeontologists, and history enthusiasts. It has been a source for fascinating discoveries from an ancient world, with everything from prehistoric tools to the footprints of Mesolithic hunters preserved on the seafloor. 

While Britain now may have become an island and Doggerland has sunk beneath the waves, the legacy of this ancient land lives on, and it offers a timely and cautionary tale of the power and might of the natural world.