Wind the clock back 8,000 years to the Mesolithic and you’ll discover a time, long before Stonehenge had even been thought of, when Britain was still connected to mainland Europe and families lived on land that is now below the English Channel.
With the last Ice Age well and truly over, migration into northwest Europe was increasing, populations were booming, and the age of the hunter-gather was drawing to a close as more and more people took up farming.
But at the same time, sea levels were on the rise. Floods and tsunamis were drowning the land beneath their feet, cutting them off from the mainland. As Britain became an island, and the outline of modern Europe took shape, people also faced a dramatic loss of territory; the now-submerged landscape that surrounds Britain once covered more than 50,000 square km.
Most of the archaeological understanding we have of the time comes from sites that are still on dry land. But if we really want to understand how Mesolithic people lived, how they first settled island Britain and made the shift from hunting and gathering to farming, then we need to look in places that are now underwater.
And that’s exactly what Garry Momber and his team of underwater archaeologists will be doing this summer, and all (or rather, partly) thanks to a lobster.
Garry is the Director of the Maritime Archaeology Trust and, back in 1999, his team were surveying what they thought were the remains of an ancient forest when they spotted a lobster flinging bits of stone out of its burrow. On closer inspection, those bits of stone turned out to be old flint tools; the divers had their first clue that here, 11m below the waves, on the edge of a shipping lane, just off the coast of the Isle of Wight, lay the remains of an 8000 year-old village.
Since then, the team (made up of volunteers and professionals) has managed to investigate a small area, but even the little they have managed to retrieve has been enough to show that the Mesolithic people who once lived here were technologically far more sophisticated than anyone had previously imagined.
“Little by little, we’ve uncovered evidence that shows these people were, in a manner of speaking, 2,000 years ahead of their time. We’ve found the oldest boat-building site in the UK, the oldest piece of string, and evidence that wheat from the Middle East arrived in Britain 2,000 years earlier than previously thought” Garry told us.
“Bouldnor Cliff is completely unique – it’s the only submerged Mesolithic settlement that we know of. If we really want to understand the Mesolithic, how people coped with this radically changing world and what technology they had, then this is the site with the highest potential we know of to do that”.
That explains why Garry and his volunteer divers are willing to dig underwater, by a shipping lane, with currents so strong they could sweep you away, in visibility that’s so bad it’s basically dark. It’s probably the most extreme set of digging conditions we’ve ever heard of, but it’s now down to Garry and his team to rescue what’s left of these people’s lives, before it all gets washed away.
“The problem is that increased storminess, stronger tides and more fishing are making it erode fast. The evidence will soon be lost, but because it’s underwater and people can’t see it, we’re not getting the funding we need to give this site the attention it deserves” Garry said.
Even the thought of sharks was not enough to put him off.
“We simply can’t bear to let the story of how people first occupied island Britain, and how they made the shift to farming, disappear like that. That’s why we’ll be diving this summer, to bring back what remains of these people’s lives before it’s too late”.
The team will have one week to bring up as much as they can, and will focus their efforts on an area where prehistoric worked wood is being washed out. Every couple of pieces will add another 1% to the Mesolithic worked wood archive in the UK.
If that doesn’t sound impressive, then you’d better reconsider because it’s finds like these that are completely changing our understanding of this transformative time.
“It will greatly increase our understanding of the wood-working technology people used to build things like canoes, huts and tools in a period that spans 5,000 years, at a time when the outline of the UK as we know it was being formed, and which sowed the seeds for permanent settlement in the UK” says Garry.
When Garry and his team set out to explore this world that has until now been lost below the waves, they will be diving into a dark soup of silty water. What emerges is yet to be seen, but unless they can get more funding, it will be their last mission, and their last chance to save what’s left of Bouldnor Cliff.
It’s going to be a hairy task and they’re going to need all the support they can get. We’ll be following the progress of the dive (which is planned to take place 13th – 17th June) online!
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