Public Release: 

Archaeologists plan to bring to life ancient land lost under the sea

University of Bradford

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IMAGE: Global map shows the area to be investigated in the Lost Frontiers project. view more

Credit: University of Bradford

University of Bradford archaeologists have received one of Europe's premier research grants for a ground-breaking project to reconstruct an ancient landscape now hidden beneath the North Sea.

Archaeologists, molecular biologists and computer scientists will work together to digitally re- construct a prehistoric country approaching the size of Ireland that, following climate change after the last Ice Age, was covered by rising sea levels and now lies beneath the North Sea.

Using modern genetics and computing technologies researchers will digitally repopulate this ancient country, called Doggerland, monitoring its development over 5000 years to reveal important clues about how our ancestors made the critical move from hunter-gathering into farming.

Funded by a prestigious €2.5 million Advanced Research Grant from the European Research Council the project will transform our understanding of how humans lived in this area from around 10,000 BC until it was flooded at the end of the last ice age around 7,500 years ago.

"The only populated lands on earth that have not yet been explored in any depth are those which have been lost underneath the sea," says Professor Vince Gaffney, Anniversary Chair in Landscape Archaeology at the University of Bradford. "Although archaeologists have known for a long time that ancient climatic change and sea level rise must mean that Doggerland holds unique and important information about early human life in Europe, until now we have lacked the tools to investigate this area properly."

The team will be using the vast remote sensing data sets generated by energy companies to reconstruct the past landscape now covered by the sea. This will help to produce a detailed 3D map that will show rivers, lakes, hills and coastlines in a country which had previously been a heartland of human occupation in Europe but was lost to the sea as a consequence of past climate change, melting ice caps and rising sea levels.

Alongside this work, specialist survey ships will recover core sediment samples from selected areas of the landscape. Uniquely, the project team will use the sediments to extract millions of fragments of ancient DNA from plants and animals that occupied Europe's ancient coastal plains. The cool, underwater environment means that DNA is better preserved here and offers archaeologists a unique view of how society and environment evolved during a period of catastrophic climate change and in a prehistoric country that had previously been lost to science and history.

The data from seismic mapping and sedimentary DNA, along with conventional environmental analysis, will be combined within computer simulations, using a technique called 'agent-based modelling, that will build a comprehensive picture showing the dynamic interaction between the environment and the animals and plants that inhabit it throughout the period - around 5000 years.

"This project is exciting not only because of what it will reveal about Doggerland, but because it gives us a whole new way of approaching the massive areas of land that were populated by humans but which now lie beneath the sea. This project will develop technologies and methodologies that archaeologists around the world can use to explore similar landscapes including those around the Americas and in South East Asia," adds Professor Gaffney.

The project is led by Professor Gaffney, and the research team includes Professor Robin Allaby at the University of Warwick, Dr Martin Bates from the University of Wales Trinity St David, Dr Richard Bates from the University of St Andrews, Dr Eugene Ch'ng at the University of Nottingham, Dr David Smith at the University of Birmingham and independent researcher, Dr Simon Fitch.

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Additional quotes from project partners

"The constant environment of the sea floor preserves ancient DNA exceptionally well allowing us to reconstruct palaeoenvironments many thousands of years older than is possible on land at the same latitude. The project promises unprecedented insight into the Mesolithic in North West Europe and will also enable us to continue to push the frontiers of sedaDNA analysis."
Professor Robin Allaby, School of Life Sciences, University of Warwick

"For the first time in the North Sea, we will be able to carry out a targeted and purposive investigation of a series of sites on the seabed. Previously archaeologists have had to rely on samples from locations selected because of impact on the sea bed. In this project we have the chance to pick our sample locations and this should allow us an unprecedented look at how this landscape changed before and during transgression."
Dr Martin Bates, Geoarchaeologist, University of Wales Trinity St David

"Using the new technologies - DNA and agent-based modelling- from core samples, together with wide-area seismic data, we will be able to unlock the environmental sequence background to key periods of pre-history. This heralds a completely new approach to both offshore and land archaeological investigations that has the potential to revolutionise the way in which archaeological prospecting is conducted."
Dr Richard Bates, Senior Lecturer in Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of St Andrews

"This project is significant as it redefines agent-based modelling, not only in terms of the hundreds of millions of entities involved, but also as a consequence of the spatial-temporal extent of the data which marine coring provides. Both the digitised geo-physical and biological data, and the data by-products of the simulations will be in the realm of Big Data research."
Eugene Ch'ng, Associate Professor in Computer Science, University of Nottingham

"This is the first time that this type of reconstruction has been attempted at this detail and scale in any marine environment. The opportunity to provide complementary analysis of established and new technologies, including sedaDNA, at such a scale is also likely to provide a step change in our understanding of past environments and our approach to landscape reconstruction."
Dr David Smith, University of Birmingham

"This project offers the potential to explore an extensive European submerged landscape in and a former heartland of the Mesolithic period. The revolutionary data gathered will provide new insights into the life and territories of people during this time and revolutionise our archaeological understanding of this period."
Dr Simon Fitch, independent researcher

About the University of Bradford

Founded in 1966, the University of Bradford is one of the UK's 'traditional' universities. It is a research-intensive institution, ranked in the top 50 in the UK for the quality of its research, with three quarters being classed as either world-leading or internationally excellent in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). The University was ranked No 1 in Yorkshire for employed graduates obtaining professional & managerial level jobs.

Known for its strong emphasis on employability skills and knowledge transfer work with businesses, the University has a truly global make up with over 20 per cent of its student population being international. The University is also a leader in sustainable development and education, and is within the top ten greenest universities in the UK, according to the Green League 2013.

About the European Research Council

Set up in 2007 by the European Commission, the European Research Council (ERC) is the first European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year it selects and funds the very best individual scientists to run five-year projects in Europe. http://erc.europa.eu/.

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