Inundated landscapes

Dr Martin Bates

The University, through the work of Dr Martin Bates is contributing to current research which explores drowned landscapes around the UK and shows how they are being rediscovered through pioneering scientific research. It reveals their human story through the artefacts left by the people - a story of a dramatic past that featured lost lands, devastating tsunamis and massive climate change. These were the challenges that our ancestors met and that we face once more today.

The site-specific investigations across the estuarine and shallow marine sector has been linked through the over-arching framework of drowned landscapes, around the British Isles, which are under increasing threat from development.  This has included work on Neanderthal landscapes around Jersey, the English Channel and Neolithic remains associated with the World Heritage sites in Orkney and through public outreach the later Prehistoric landscapes of Cardigan Bay. One of the most significant landscapes lost to sea level rise is the European world of Doggerland. Occupying much of the North Sea basin, this inundated landscape, bigger than many modern European countries, was slowly submerged between 18,000 BC and 5,500 BC. Archaeologists now consider Doggerland to have been the heartland of human occupation within Northern Europe at that time, but understanding it depends on being able to locate and visualise the landscape.

Scientists have taken a new approach to this by coupling geophysical survey techniques developed by the oil industry with 3D visualisation technologies developed by the computer modelling industry. These innovative methodologies allow the recreation of these once inhabited landscapes, mapping rivers, lakes, hills, coastlines and estuaries, and the modelling of the flora and fauna associated with them. These models bring back to life the homeland of these Mesolithic populations, tantalisingly hinted at by artefacts recovered from the seabed. They also allow scientists to explore the effects of sea level rise upon the landscape and its populations in new and more immersive ways that may help the past provide solutions for the present.

Direct impact on public perception of these issues has been made through exhibits at the Royal Society 2012 Summer Science Exhibition in London in July 2012 and the British Association in Aberdeen in September 2012.  Figures from the Royal Society show indicate that over 11,000 visitors viewed our exhibition with the linked web and Facebook pages receiving over 38,000 hits over the exhibit period and continued coverage by over 3,400 reporting websites (which spanned 93 blogs and 39 discussion sites) in over 20 languages worldwide to date. Follow-up related media interest (interviews, as far afield as California and Russia), published articles and commentary17-18 led to the request for the work to be displayed in the UK’s first dedicated Mesolithic to Neolithic hunter-gatherer permanent exhibit housed in an extension to the museum of Tomb of the Eagles, Orkney22 [visitor numbers to be added].  Impact of the work continued with media interest on radio, TV and major articles published in, amongst others, BBC Focus Magazine (average UK circulation, 65k/month)12 and National Geographic (average US circulation, 5million/month.  Recognition of the significance of the submerged landscapes around Jersey have been recognised through the award of a Tourism Development Grant to the Jersey project

Funders of research include:

  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

A Multi-disciplinary Approach to the Archaeological Investigation of a Bedrock-Dominated Shallow-Marine Landscape: an example from the Bay of Firth, Orkney, UKThe International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (2013) 42.1: 24–43.  Martin Bates, Nigel Nayling, Richard Bates, Sue Dawson, Dei Huws, Caroline Wickham-Jones.

 Investigation of shallow-marine environments for submerged prehistoric archaeology can be hampered in many localities by extensive bedrock exposure and thus limited preservation potential. Using the concept of ‘seamless archaeology’ where land-based archaeology is integrated across the intertidal zone through to the offshore, a multi-disciplinary approach is essential. This approach taken in the Bay of Firth, Orkney uses geophysics, historical archive and ethno-archaeology, coastal geomorphology, palaeo-environmental analyses and sea-level science, and allows a clearer understanding of the landscape inwhich prehistoric settlers lived. While acknowledging the limitations of the preserved environment, we are successful in identifying areas of archaeological potential on the sea-bed for both upstanding structural elements as well as sediment preservation that contains evidence for human occupation. This has wider implications beyond Orkney’s World Heritage sites to provide a blueprint for similar studies elsewhere in the coastal zone.


Late Neanderthal occupation in North-West Europe: rediscovery, investigation and dating of a last glacial sediment sequence at the site of La Cotte de Saint Brelade, Jersey.   Journal of Quaternary Science (2013) 28(7) 647–652   Martin Bates, Matthew Pope, Andrew Shaw,  Beccy Scott,  Jean-Luc Schwenninger. 

 In 2011, a programme of field research was undertaken to effect the stabilization of an unstable section in the West Ravine at the key Neanderthal occupation site of La Cotte de St Brelade on the Channel Island of Jersey. As part of this essential remedial work the threatened section was analysed to characterize its archaeological and palaeoenvironmental potential as well provide optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dates. The work determined, through two concordant OSL dating programmes, that the section formed part of an extensive sequence of sedimentation spanning >105 to <48 ka. Furthermore, reanalysis of the archive determined that the sediment sequence examined contained the stratigraphic equivalent of deposits lying below those that  have previously produced Neanderthal fossils. Through our work, we can now constrain these younger sediments to being younger than 48 ka. The combined results suggest that this sequence now represents the recovery of an extensive dataset, thought lost to science through complete excavation, which holds the potential to throw light on the disappearance of Neanderthal populations from the Atlantic-edge outpost on the north-west frontier of their world.