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Mapping Doggerland: the Mesolithic Landscapes of the Southern North Sea, edited by V. GAFFNEY, K. THOMSON AND S. FITCH
Archaeopress, 2007. 131 pp, 81 figures (69 colour), 6 tables, pb, ISBN 987-1-905739 14 1 (19.99)

It is well known that the North Sea, an area roughly equivalent in size to Britain, was previously dryland but, between 12,000-6000 BP, was progressively drowned as a result of rising sea-levels following the retreat of the Devensian ice sheets. Isolated archaeological finds suggest this landscape was occupied by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, but, there has always existed a fundamental lack of detailed critical knowledge of this landscape and the people who inhabited it.

‘Mapping Doggerland’ details the results of an ambitious project (North Sea Palaeolandscapes Project; abbrev. NSPP) to map the submerged palaeolandscapes of the southern North Sea using existing seismic data. It represents a huge leap forward in our understanding of what is likely the largest and best preserved, but least studied, prehistoric landscape in Europe. It should be noted from the outset, as the authors acknowledge, that this volume does not cover the entire southern North Sea, but rather the western half, and represents the first tentative steps towards a more detailed understanding of the archaeological and environmental potential of this buried landscape.

The volume is divided into nine chapters that can be summarised as follows: 1. Mapping Doggerland, introduction, previous research, aims and objectives; 2. Coordinating marine survey data sources; 3. Seismic reflection methods and project methodology; 4. Merging technologies, the integration and visualisation of spatial data sets used in the project; 5. Geomorphological investigation of submerged depositional features within the Outer Silver Pit, southern North Sea; 6. Salt tectonics in the southern North Sea; 7. An atlas of the palaeolandscapes of the Southern North Sea; 8. The potential of the organic archive for environmental reconstruction; and 9. Heritage management and North Sea Palaeolandscapes Project.

The aims and objectives of research are many and varied, but perhaps the most relevant is the development of a model for the survival potential, and risk to environmental and archaeological deposits, as a first step in developing effective strategies for heritage management. This is timely in view of the increasing threat to this submerged landscape from commercial interests, eg, aggregate extraction, petroleum exploration, trawling and offshore wind farms. However, in order to adequately assess the archaeological, palaeoenvironmental and geological significance and potential of buried landscapes such as the North Sea we need to know something about their geomorphology.

What is unique about this volume is the use of existing 3D and 2D seismic data in a way that was not intended at the time of collection, and demonstrates what can be achieved through cooperation between academic and commercial sectors. The data was originally collected for petroleum, oil and service companies and is restricted largely to areas containing viable natural resources, totalling c. 23,000 km2. The authors acknowledge the limitations of the data. The seismic data is of variable resolution and omits the sea floor immediately adjacent to the present coastline of northeast England, but still represents a immense improvement on our previous understanding of the geomorphology of the North Sea. The project is also unique in the application of sophisticated display technologies used to analyse and model large and complicated datasets, otherwise not routinely applied to archaeological research.

Chapters two through to four outline the technological and methodological background to the project. This includes a comprehensive overview of the principals, positives and negatives of 3D and 2D seismic survey that are easy to follow for those without prior or detailed knowledge of these techniques. Given the title of this publication, it is a little odd that the authors chose to place the specific case studies in chapters five to six before, rather than after, the ‘Atlas of the palaeo-landscapes of the Southern North Sea’ (Chapter seven), that is surely the centre-piece of this impressive volume. Would chapters five and six have been better placed after the atlas, serving to emphasise the variability of landforms recognised using seismic survey techniques?

Chapter 7 presents the seismic survey data that forms the most significant aspect of this volume. A key aspect of the interpretation and dating of landscape features involves the use of existing borehole records from the North Sea and isostatic models of Holocene sea-level rise. The survey identifies coastlines, estuaries, wetlands, lakes, rivers and other significant topographic features such as gentle hills, that the authors hypothesise would have been significant foci for hunter-gatherer settlement, discussed later in chapter 9. The data is well-illustrated in a series of maps that are useful in identifying broad landscape features and zones. However, what one does not get from these, largely two-dimensional maps, is any sense of the relative topography of this landscape. Moreover, this would have been a highly dynamic and changeable environment in the early Holocene. What is not apparent is how factors, such as climate change and rising sea-levels, would have progressively alerted and transformed this landscape over thousands of years. No doubt this will come with future publications as a more detailed understanding of this landscape is developed.

Chapter 8 assesses the potential of the organic archive for environmental reconstruction. The conclusion is that the existing borehole data is of little value in addressing the environmental aims of the project, and that further targeted samples would be required to achieve this. The pollen data is of low resolution, rarely producing pollen counts that enable a statistically valid interpretation of the data. There is no comment on the presence or absence of microscopic charcoal particles that could provide additional evidence of probable anthropogenic activity in the surrounding landscape. There is also no mention made of samples taken for beetle analysis and whether these were analysed at all. What about the potential of these samples for diatom or foraminiferal analysis?

Consideration of the archaeological implications of the NSPP are dealt with in chapter 9. It is no doubt a major achievement of this project to provide an outline of the palaeotopography of a buried landscape of which we previously knew little. Archaeologically, however, the situation remains unchanged, and we still know very little about the Mesolithic inhabitants of this region. The authors argue that the North Sea represents a ‘black hole in the archaeological record of northwest Europe’, and that ‘the landscape data offers the opportunity to explore landscape predictive models that can refine our concepts of landuse and enhance the potential of directed, invasive exploration to answer archaeological questions’. In particular, they highlight the potential of well-stratified archaeological sites to provide information on the utilisation of marine resources in the early Mesolithic. Such evidence from England is currently lacking because such sites located along the early Mesolithic coastline are, like Doggerland, now submerged. Did the occupants of Doggerland follow a lifestyle similar to that of Scandinavia, utilising only those resources within the coastal zone?

There are some hints in the text of the difficulties in achieving answers to these questions, but they are not considered in detail. Unlike the successful submarine archaeology of Denmark, largely undertaken in shallow, sheltered bays and estuaries, the North Sea presents significant difficulties to identifying and investigating archaeological deposits. Most obviously these include the weather conditions and depth of water that would present significant challenges for underwater archaeology. The landscape characterisation maps highlight large areas with high preservation potential. What would be the resources required to discover, excavate and retrieve well-stratified archaeological and palaeoenvironmental material? In order for meaningful comparisons to be made between the hunter-gatherers of the North Sea, Britain and continental northwest Europe, one would surely need to investigate a substantial number of archaeological sites representative of settlement in this region. The authors do not consider how this might be achieved, if at all. Indeed, the Heritage Management implications of the project are likely to result in less, not more archaeology coming to light, by limiting commercial activities in those areas of highest archaeological and palaeoenvironmental potential.

In summary, this book clearly represents a huge step forward in our understanding of the palaeotopography of the North Sea, and highlights the significant potential that exists for furthering our understanding of the development of this landscape during the early Holocene. However, one is left wondering whether it will expand our understanding of the archaeological aspects of this landscape. Peopling this landscape may be a far greater challenge to achieve than the authors are at present willing to acknowledge.

Alex Brown
University of Reading

Review submitted: May 2008

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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