Peopling the landscape of Doggerland: the case study of Orkney

The submerged landmass of Doggerland, once joining Britain to the Continent, has revolutionised our understanding of Prehistoric Britain. Few people realise that island Britain is a relatively recent entity; for most of the human history of Britain we have been attached to the Continent.

Advanced techniques of information processing allow us to reconstruct the flooded landscape of Doggerland, but archaeological evidence so far has been restricted to chance finds. Submerged sites do exist elsewhere, in sheltered waters such as the Baltic, but work along the north-west margins of Europe is more difficult.

Previous research in Orkney has provided information on the scale of past sea-level change; from a height of as much as 30m lower when the first exploratory groups of hunter-gatherers moved into the islands, sea-levels only reached present height about 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age. This means that the submerged landscape around Orkney holds the potential not just for elusive Mesolithic (hunter-gatherer) remains, but also for more substantial Neolithic (early farming) remains. However, detailed survey has so far failed to identify definite sites on the sea-bed around Orkney.

This project uses an alternative approach to understanding the early settlement, that of landscape modeling. By reconstructing the early landscape in detail it is possible to consider the way in which people might have used it and identify the locations of possible sites. Information on recent conditions, such as currents and wave movement, can then be added to give an idea of likely hot spots for site preservation.

Flotta detail jpg

Left: the dramatic entrance to Scapa Flow, as it might have looked to the first settlers of Orkney some 10,000 years ago. The important point to note is that Scapa Flow becomes a land-locked bay; right: close up of the entrance to Scapa Flow some 7,000 years ago showing the scale of landscape change that the early settlers had to deal with.

Orkney has been chosen as a case study for this project because of the existing data on the submerged landscape here, and because of its direct relationship to the wider North Sea. I am hoping that detail from Orkney can be used to help us ‘people’ the wider landscapes of Doggerland.

I have spent this year developing GIS (Geographical Information System) skills in order to process the different strands of relevant information. By combining detailed bathymetry with topographical information from the land I have been able to build a seamless model of the ground surface from land to sea. Information relating to sea level height at different times has then allowed me to create an idea of how the islands may have looked to the first settlers of Orkney. So far I have studied two periods: 10,000 years ago when people first arrived in the islands and 7,000 years ago towards the end of the Mesolithic. I have also started to look at the time 6,000 years ago when the first farmers arrived.

Giving some shape to the land has helped me to realise the complexity of the human use of the land in prehistory. It is not just a question of saying that there was more land for people to inhabit, but also of looking at the lie of the land and exploring the emotional reactions of those approaching the islands in small skin boats. Over the coming year I shall be refining the picture and adding more data in order to extrapolate from Orkney for a wider view.

The project may only be half way through but already it has provided me with a fantastic opportunity both to increase my own skills and to create and explore a totally new world: that of the past.

Ms Caroline Wickham-Jones
University of Aberdeen

Caroline was awarded a Research Fellowship grant in 2011.