Wednesday, October 3, 2007


Until 8,000 years ago Britain was part of the European continent. The ice melted and the seas rose for several thousand years, shrinking the land that joined us to The Netherlands and Denmark. But the final bridge only disappeared in 6000BC. Tony Robinson and the Time Team piece together the story of Britain's drowned world: the land, far bigger than England is today, lost when the North Sea and the English Channel were formed in a huge, 10,000-year flood.

Archaeologists have just discovered that humans were here as far back as 700,000 years ago; until recently it was thought to be little more than half that time. For 690,000 of those 700,000 years, it seems likely that those people were living just on the edge of Britain as it is known today, mostly on the land that was drowned, and is now the bottom of the sea. Scientists are only just beginning to realise that the key to understanding our early ancestors may be on the seabed.

Travelling back and forth to The Netherlands and round the coast, Tony and the Team discover vast mammoth bones, tiger teeth and lion jaws, as well as human skulls, fine worked tools and even a hunter-gatherer campsite. Revolutionary high-tech analysis reveals a picture of a fertile and attractive land now lost for ever: lost, of course, because of climate change. How did our ancestors adapt when the rising sea stole their land?

Britain has been through many temperature cycles. At times ice sheets two kilometres thick covered the country; at others temperatures soared, melting the ice. Such a dramatic temperature rise happened when the North Sea and English Channel formed, around 8,000 years ago.

In at least eight warm periods, the human species has attempted to colonise Britain. The current colonisation, in which we live, is probably the longest and most successful.

But it is clear from finds, especially in the Netherlands, that the land now under the North Sea would have been a lush paradise in warm periods. There were many rivers on what is now the sea bed; the gravel industry hunts down these river beds and dredges thousands of tonnes. Their information helps scientists plot these rivers.

There are a number of digs and dives round the country - many funded by English Heritage and supported by a levy on the gravel industry - that are beginning to explore the story of early man in some detail.

The one which produced the 700,000-year-old finds is at Happisburgh in Norfolk. Others are at Starr Carr in Yorkshire and underwater in the Solent.

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