Brown Banks, White Cliffs and Fossil Forests: an update | Flanders Marine Institute
 

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Brown Banks, White Cliffs and Fossil Forests: an update

Bradford (2019.05.31) – On May 7th, 2019 an 11-day expedition by European scientists from Belgium and Britain was undertaken to explore three sites of potential geological and archaeological interest in the southern North Sea. It has long been suspected that the southern North Sea plain may have been home to thousands of people, and chance finds by fishermen over many decades support this theory. A concentration of archaeological material, including worked bone, stone and human remains, has been found within the area around the Brown Bank, roughly 100 km due east from Great Yarmouth and 80 km west of the Dutch coast. The quantities of material strongly suggest the presence of a prehistoric settlement. As such the Brown Bank provides archaeologists with a unique opportunity to locate a prehistoric settlement in the deeper and more remote areas of the North Sea, known today as Doggerland.

Press release by: University of Bradford (UK), Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ), Ghent University (UGent) and Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences – Operational Direction Natural Environment (RBINS-OD Nature)

Until sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, between 8-10,000 years ago, an area of land connected Great Britain to Scandinavia and the continent.  It has long been suspected that the southern North Sea plain may have been home to thousands of people, and chance finds by fishermen over many decades support this theory. Over the past decades a concentration of archaeological material, including worked bone, stone and human remains, has been found within the area around the Brown Bank, roughly 100 km due east from Great Yarmouth and 80 km west of the Dutch coast. The quantities of material strongly suggest the presence of a prehistoric settlement. As such the Brown Bank provides archaeologists with a unique opportunity to locate a prehistoric settlement in the deeper and more remote areas of the North Sea, known today as Doggerland.

Prospecting for such a settlement within the North Sea is a challenging activity. The Banks lie in one of the busiest seaways in the world. Multiple utilities cross the area, bad weather is frequent, and visibility under water is often limited.  Given these challenging conditions, researchers on the Belgian vessel, RV Belgica, used acoustic techniques and physical sampling of the seabed to unravel the topography and history of 3 areas chosen for survey.  The survey lines shot by the team, and the detailed areas of survey are shown in figure 2.  During the survey team used a novel parametric echosounder from the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ). This uses sonar technology to obtain images of the sub bottom with the highest possible resolution, and was combined with the more traditional “sparker” seismic source to explore deeper sediments.  On the Brown Bank (B and C), the Belgica also deployed a grab and a Gilson dredge for sampling near surface stratigraphy. Video footage was collated using VLIZ’s dedicated videoframe and a simpler GoPro mounted on the Gilson dredge. A video showing the equipment in operation on the expedition can be seen at https://youtu.be/sGKfyrDCtmw


Figure 1: Equipment used on the RV Belgica. Clockwise from top left. Parametric echosounder, sparker, grab, dredge and videoframe (©Simon Fitch, Lost Frontiers).


Figure 2: Route of the RV Belgica showing areas of detailed survey (Map data ©2019 Google and VLIZ/Lost Frontiers).

The three areas surveyed during the 11-day voyage are shown in figure 2.

Area A - The Central Survey Area: The survey area in the central part of the southern North Sea is believed to be part of the main confluence region of the Rhine-Meuse palaeorivers and the central drainage system (the so-called ‘Axial Channel’). These flowed south through the Dover Straits and drained the meltwater from the icecaps during the Last Ice Age. Little is known about this confluence or how the landscape here reacted to sea level change.    

Area B - The Southern River Valley: The “Southern River” is a major prehistoric river valley that flowed across a submerged headland off the East Anglian coast. Previously surveyed by Lost Frontiers, the team believes that the estuary of the river, which may also have been flanked by white chalk cliffs, provides another prime area for prehistoric settlement.


Figure 3: The Southern River showing an image of the valley ( A), and survey lines over the valley (B) (© Lost Frontiers/VLIZ)

Area C - The Brown Bank: The Brown Bank is a major upstanding seabed feature and is formed by an elongated, 30-kilometre long, sand ridge. A seismic survey by the project team in 2018 indicated the probable presence of river channels, original, prehistoric land surfaces, and an estuary. These were confirmed in this year’s survey. The observed landscape appeared well preserved and offered a significant opportunity to gain a detailed understanding of this Mesolithic landscape and even to find evidence of human occupation.

West of the Brown Bank a series of long lines were surveyed to investigate the central river system in the southern North Sea, to investigate how the ancient river systems connected and responded to episodes of sea-level rise and fall.


Figure 4: Survey across and around the Brown Bank. Inset (A) shows the detail over the Brown Bank itself (© VLIZ/Lost Frontiers)

Results

Survey over the Southern River was heavily impacted by poor weather.  Despite this, new high-resolution seismic data were acquired linking Southern River and Estuary to existing survey data and an important link was made with vibrocore data collected by “Europe’s Lost Frontiers” project. During the trip a sample of natural flint was collected from the submarine chalk outcrop, located near the Southern River, and will be analysed. A sample of peat was also found at the Southern River estuary and is awaiting analysis.

High-resolution seismic data was acquired in the Brown Bank area providing greatly improved mapping for sampling of Mesolithic land surfaces and, provisionally, a new well-preserved Holocene land surface was discovered near Brown Bank. Imaging data from this area suggests a very well-preserved landscape (figures 5 and 6). This impression was further supported when the grab and dredge were employed to recover material (location indicated on Figure 6). Although time was limited, several large samples of peat were recovered from this area.  One block of peat included terrestrial snail shells (figure 7). In addition, samples of wood, tree roots and other plant remains were also acquired from the sea bed (figure 8). The evidence strongly suggests that a prehistoric woodland is preserved in this area, at least, of the Brown Bank.


Figure 5: A “sparker” profile showing modern sandbanks and prehistoric features including an ancient river “palaeovalley”, a depression which may represent the bed of a lake, and erosion caused by inundation of Doggerland (© VLIZ/UGENT)


Figure 6: Parametric echosounder profile from the Brown Bank showing prehistoric river valley and inundation surface with location for dredging (© VLIZ/Lost Frontiers).


Figure 7: Sample of peat with terrestrial snail shell (© VLIZ)

 
Figure 8: Tree root recovered from the Brown Bank (© VLIZ)

In the relatively short period of time available for sampling near the Brown Bank during this trip, the material recovered suggests that the expedition has revealed a well-preserved, prehistoric landscape which, based on preliminary inspection of the material, must have contained a prehistoric woodland.  Similar preserved forests are occasionally found around the coasts of Britain (figure 9) and these may be associated with prehistoric settlement.  The peat and organic remains from the Brown Bank are now being dated and studied carefully to extract further evidence about this remarkable landscape and the intention of the project team is now to return to the area to carry out further, detailed exploration.


Figure 9: The prehistoric forest at Borth, Wales (© Dr Martin Bates)

Supporting Information

The May 2019 expedition led by Dr. Tine Missiaen from the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) involves an international team of scientists from Belgium (Ghent University, VLIZ) and the UK (University of Bradford). The voyage on board the Belgian research vessel “RV Belgica” takes place within the collaborative Belgian-UK-Dutch research project “Deep History: Revealing the palaeo-landscape of the southern North Sea” which is aimed at reconstructing the Quaternary history (roughly spanning the last 500.000 years) and human occupation of the wider Brown Bank area.

The project complements the Bradford-led “Europe’s Lost Frontiers” project, in which archaeologists are exploring the early Holocene, North Sea landscape known as Doggerland.  This project received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (ERC funded project No. 670518 LOST FRONTIERS)

Follow the action on twitter @BrownBank2018

Press contacts

In Belgium
-    Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ), press office
Dr. Bart De Smet, +32-(0)478-56 96 78 | bart.de.smet@vliz.be  

-    Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ), academic contact
Dr. Tine Missiaen, hoofd van de onderzoekseenheid ‘Seascapes Past & Future’, +32-(0)474-51 20 21 | tine.missiaen@vliz.be

-    Ghent University (UGent), academic contact
Dr. Maikel De Clercq, +32-(0)496-75 57 40 | maikel.declercq@ugent.be

-    Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences – Operational Direction Natural Environment (RBINS-OD Nature)
Kelle Moreau (for practical questions regarding RV Belgica, timing of the expedition, etc.), +32-(0)486-12 58 77 | kmoreau@naturalsciences.be

In the UK
-    University of Bradford, press office
Jenny Watkinson, j.watkinson2@bradford.ac.uk

-    University of Bradford, academic contact
Prof. Vincent Gaffney, principle investigator ‘Europe’s Lost Frontiers’ Project, School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, v.gaffney@bradford.ac.uk

Extra information

The Belgian federal research vessel Belgica is owned by the Federal Science Policy Office (BELSPO) and operated by the Belgian Navy in cooperation with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences-Operational Directorate Natural Environment (RBINS-OD Nature). - odnature.naturalsciences.be/belgica

The Renard Centre of Marine Geology research unit of the Department of Geology (Ghent University) is specialized in the development and use of seismic methods and geophysical techniques, in continental margin geology, limnogeology, natural hazards and Quaternary geology. - www.ugent.be/we/geologie/nl/onderzoek/organisatie/rcmg - www.rcmg.ugent.be

The Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) is a centre for marine and coastal research. As a partner in various projects and networks it promotes and supports the international image of Flemish marine scientific research and international marine education. The paleo-landscape research forms part of the VLIZ research topic Seascapes Past & Future and adds to the expertise VLIZ is developing with regard to paleo-landscapes and fossil remains in the southern North Sea. - www.vliz.be - www.vliz.be/en/palaeolandscape-research

Europe’s Lost Frontiers is an ERC Advanced Research project is supported by funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme ( ERC funded project No. 670518 LOST FRONTIERS), and is  run from the University of Bradford. Lost Frontiers studies the inundated landscapes of the southern North Sea using archaeo-geophysics, molecular biology and computer simulation to develop novel approaches for the study of past environments, ecological change and the transition between hunter gathering societies and farming within the inundated landscapes of Doggerland and North West Europe more widely - lostfrontiers.teamapp.com


Figure 10: The Belgian research vessel Belgica (© Belgian Navy)