The way we were – Doggerland, Ice Age and Celts

Doggerland and Cantre’r Gwaelod – The Way We Were.
But Who Were We and Who Are We Now?

School  history was “1066 an all that” – kings and queens in the middle ages – and recent wars and events like the Poll Tax riots. Quite interesting but very predictable. And it left me with the impression that before the Romans came here early in the first millenium  little happened other than a few stone agers became Celts and someone built Stonehenge with stones from Wales. For a whole range of reasons, I would like to understand a lot more about the earlier times.

Who were the “Stone Agers” and where did they come from? Indeed, when did they come? Did they stay in Cornwall and County Cork for the whole Ice Age and if so how did they manage? As the ice retreated, some ten to fifteen thousand years before the Romans arrived, and a similar time “Pre-Celt”, what did the population do, where did they live and are they still with us? Surely the indigenous population was not wiped out by the Celtic invaders who probably only arrived in dribs and drabs 500 years or so before the Romans. (Personal communication from American ethnoarchaeologist Tok Thompson who has a book published on the subjec

Clearly the most crucial geographical and paleoarchaeological facts to bear in mind, other than the coldness of most of central and northern Europe, are those pertaining to sea level. During the last ice age, as a result of the deposition of around 3% of the Earth’s water as ice over the solid land mass, sea levels were around 120 metres lower than those of today and this lasted for twenty to thirty thousand years. In addition southern Britain and Ireland were raised relative to the north by the sheer weight of ice that Scotland bore. Like a see-saw Scotland down, England up. It’s an interesting exercise to calculate the weight involved – just consider maybe two kilometres depth of solid ice at one tonne per cubic metre!

I have not looked at sufficient sea bed maps to work out exactly how much extra land was made available by these two phenomena but certain facts are clear. You could walk from the West coast of Ireland overland to Denmark  and the Benelux region. There was no Irish Sea or North Sea south of a line from Denmark to the East Riding. The Thames, as  was, joined the Seine somewhere near Dover and flowed South towards the Bay of Biscay. Between Wales and Ireland was land later named “Cantre’r Gwaelod” in the Mabinogion, (Welsh folk myth) and the “Southern North Sea” was a huge open plain now termed “Doggerland”, an area roughly equal to the present UK land mass. Otherwise, where there is now coastline, imagine the sea level being nearly four hundred feet lower – and on the south coast probably more than that ( because of the see-saw effect).

Our ancestors must have made use of this. They would have found lusher greenery and presumably more animal life in these lowlands, and weather conditions would have been so much more clement. Did they build structures? Are there other artifacts remaining to show us how they survived what must have have been pretty harsh conditions. Undeniably all areas not under ice were accessible as passage was open from the warmer southern European countries. If animals migrated north in summertime to forage then it is probable that human tribes did the same. Then animals such as mammoth would presumably have overwintered in the frozen steppes, which would have included areas such as today’s Somerset Levels and, maybe, Kent and Essex and their Lower Doggerland regions now so submerged but then so viable. Maybe the preserved forests off what is now the Pembroke coast then supported a richer wildlife, as being quite far West and nearer any residual drift northwards of  equatorial heat – what today is the Gulf Stream. The present Severn Estuary region must have supported a considerable,  terrestrial ecology!

It would seem to be pretty reasonable to expect there to be numerous submerged settlements or, at least, encampments left by these ice age Europeans. How about under the  Somerset Levels, though? How deep is that peat, how far back does it date? Interesting dig to find a summer mammoth hunt camp debris, preserved in the acidic peat bog liquids!

And then, he goes on, getting deeper into speculation mode, as the ice receded the summer camps would stay into autumn and, later still, overwinter until they became permanent settlements. And can we put a date on such events? From maybe as much as 15000 years ago as just a peppering and probably sporadic. Picture the landscape of the time. Vast glacial deposits on the fringes of the highlands and a predominance of rock stripped bare. Limestone and other soft stoned areas when glaciated would have been much reduced so led to very extensive debris. All these fringes would have been seeded with colonising vegetation very early on and certainly the pollen record demonstrates the progress northwards from the south and south west of numerous species from over 10000 years before the present day (bp).

So, whereas during the glacial peak these edge areas would have been generally barren now recolonisation was quite rapid. Birch, willow, hazel and similar species would have led the way but, remember, it would have been a continuum with a front leading out from “mainland” Europe. There would have been no need for seeds to have been dropped by birds onto the fertile but empty soils of south west Cornwall as it was all still one land mass.

On the north west coast of Ireland are remains of settlements dating back 10000 years bp and there are elaborate remnants of dwellings in the Isle of Man from a thousand or so years later. Under the peat bogs of the far north of Ireland are the walls of elaborate farmsteads and, of course, under the Irish Sea is Cantre’r Gwaelod! Well, folk legend says you can still hear the drowned church bells ringing……..

But who were they, these early Britons, and are they still here now? As the ice retreated further, what happened to these people? Well, Ireland was eventually cut off from the mainland, as the Sea burst through, probably initially from the North. Much later Doggerland, too, was flooded and Britain isolated from mainland Europe. But even this was 6ooo  to 8000 years bp. The inhabitants of Britain and Ireland at that time were decendents of itinerant hunter-gatherers and not a migrated people (as the Celts, much later) or an invading army (such as the Romans, Vikings or Saxons).

It is from them that the social history of Britain emerged and we should get to know them better, before they are lost for ever.

So a book could be “The Celtic Myth”  – or is that just a chapter! It seems we should draw out the true archaeological record and write up the results as a review to portray the following:

  • Life during the ice age, showing the coming and going of hunters over the continuous landmass, following their prey – mammoth, orach and other exotic species – as they themselves followed the seasons. “Cornwall” is now better termed the Greater Cornish Region by adding all the additionally exposed “lower lands”.
  • Bathed by whatever remained of a Gulf Stream these lower areas would have been warmer carrying vegetation and presumably year round animal life. Similarly Pembroke and the south-west of Ireland and all the land that joined them (!) would have had reasonably warm climates and a similar ecology. Apart from crossing the Thameseine river, to the East the land was part of the European mainland. Any “British” life would have lived in this huge area, now largely lost underwater.
  • The ten thousand years post ice age would have allowed the inhabitants of the South West, or the seasonal visitors to those regions, to move further northwards and eastwards as the ice retreated and vegetation recolonised the glacial tilths and moraines. It is no surprise then that we have very early dates for settlements on the north west coast of Ireland and also the Isle of Man. The folk memory for inhabitants of the present day Irish Sea exist as “Cantre’s Gwaelod” and similar recollections appear in Cornish and Breton legend. One must assume numerous habitations now to be submerged.
  • By 5000 ybp civilisation had developed to create stable farmstead communities, whose relics can be found, for example, under deep layers of peat today. Of course the Irish Sea flooded into the basin around 10000 ybp from the north but soon cutting Ireland off from what was still the European plate by flowing through to the south. However vast forests still flourished for another 5000 years before, slowly, the whole sea was flooded to its present shores.
  • Ireland was thus an island but soon developed a diverse import and export trade in people and commodities – as demonstrated in archaeological record.  Who were the Irish then? Certainly no Celtic content as they who were still roaming round in Asia at the time. Nor were they of Nordic extraction as those civilisations developed later when the ice sheets eventually melted sufficiently to allow Northern settlement. Most reasonably one should assume the early Irish to be drawn from the southern  regions of Europe which probably had fairly stable hunter gatherer populations throughout the last glacial maximum.
  • Can we develop a picture of these people? What evidence is there? How mobile were they? Did they carry out fixed area cultivation of crops? Did they use Professor Michael Williams’ descripted forest burning to drive animals out of cover? Certainly Ireland lost its recently grown post glacial rich forest cover very soon after it first matured. Initially, too, there was no peat deposited – that artifact came much later, possibly resultant from climate shift acting on poor quality land use – early farming. Presumably the new population even included descendants of the people that had been driven southwards by the return of the ice sheets 30000 years earlier? What of the Neanderthals, who certainly had been in Southern Spain?
  • Anyway, they were only eventually semi-isolated by the drowning first of the Irish Sea lands and, much later, by the loss of Doggerland under the North Sea.
  • Categorically we must state that the Celts came  much later and certainly by sea after long journeys over Asia and Europe. What size were the Irish and mainland British populations at that time? How strongly would they have resisted these offcomers? How many Celts, indeed, actually survived? Was there disease, or had there been, so the decks were cleared with few people at all living in Britain at the time? Methinks more likely the Celts would have caught something on arriving in Britain but, hey, that’s just conjecture! Maybe bad weather and crop failure, then?
  • Anyway,  it is probably true that Celtism is far less important in the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish and, indeed, English makeup – in which case ought we not know this and put facts and figures to paper? Work out our real ancestry, before it really is too late?

[Sometime I’ll edit this further and expand it to be the epic it deserves to be. It occurs to me that I must include a Robert Graves style investigation of Druidism here as they surely must have been of these Pre-Celts. Did they have an Irish equivalent? Breton culture, of course, has Getafix! And the Scots have folk as per Arthurian times – Merlyn, even.]


About greencentre

Non grant supported hence independent scientist, green activist, writer and forest planter.
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