Ancient UK shipbuilding site suggests Stone Age humans were far more advanced than previously thought

In yet another stunning find by archaeologists across the pond in the United Kingdom, pieces of lumber submerged off the coast of the Isle of Wight suggests that an 8,000-year-old shipbuilding site existed during the Stone Age.

Located just south of England in the English Channel, the Isle of Wight has played a major defensive role for centuries. But just under the surface of the sea, an ancient landscape lurks reminding us that the British Isles used to be much bigger. And researchers just discovered that Stone Age humans were more technologically advanced than once believed.

A view of the Boulder Cliff site above the surface. An ancient world lies just beneath. Image via Twitter/Garry Momber.

First discovered 20 years ago, the Bouldnor Cliff excavation site is a treasure trove of Mesolithic (Stone Age) artifacts and materials that have given scientists a much greater understanding of ancient times, both in the human sense and the environmental.

Discovered thanks to a lobster?

According to the Maritime Archaeology Trust:

Excavations have been on-going at Bouldnor Cliff since the 8,000 year old Mesolithic settlement was first identified in 1999, when a lobster was seen throwing Stone Age worked flints from its burrow. Since then the site has yielded numerous secrets, including the oldest piece of string and has doubled the archive of worked Mesolithic timber that has ever been recovered in this country. The material recovered has demonstrated that the technology of the era was 2,000 years ahead of what archaeologists previously believed. Furthermore, Bouldnor Cliff has the earliest record of wheat in the UK, and potentially also the earliest boat building site in the world.

Indeed, and researchers have found evidence of such shipbuilding in the form of pieces of wood that when pieced together from what likely would have been a “cohesive platform consisting of split timbers, several layers thick, resting on horizontally laid round-wood foundations” resting among a drowned forest of ancient trees.

Several pieces of ancient wood exposed by erosion have been collected by the team. Image via Twitter/Garry Momber.

“This new discovery is particularly important as the wooden platform is part of a site that doubles the amount of worked wood found in the UK from a period that lasted 5,500 years,” Maritime Archaeological Trust Director Garry Momber said in a press release by the National Oceanography Centre.

“The site contains a wealth of evidence for technological skills that were not thought to have been developed for a further couple of thousand years, such as advanced woodworking. This site shows the value of marine archaeology for understanding the development of civilization,” stated Momber.

An ancient post, possibly used to secure a wooden platform, found at Bouldnor Cliff under the water next to 5,200 peat. Image via Twitter/Garry Momber.

The problem is that the site is so productive because the ocean floor is eroding away at a swift pace, so fast that researchers have a hard time keeping up in an effort to save what’s left of the precious Stone Age history.

“Being underwater, there are no regulations that can protect it,” Momber said. “Therefore, it is down to our charity, with the help of our donors, to save it before it is lost forever.”

But because of the erosion, archaeologists have made several other finds that place this underwater land into a proper context.

Two of the sites are particularly archaeologically productive and have been dated to c.6,200 to 6,000 cal BC. One has been the source of almost 1,000 worked flints, flakes and tools while the other, with close to 100 pieces of worked wood, has practically doubled the amount of Mesolithic worked wood in the UK.

Sedimentary ancient DNA has revealed a habitat of oak forest and herbaceous plants, including Einkorn that provides evidence that wheat arrived in Great Britain over two millennia earlier than previously recorded. This material, coupled with tangentially split timbers and finely crafted tools suggests an advanced Neolithic influence. It also contains an arrangement of trimmed and split timbers that could be a platform, walkway or collapsed structure.

The ancient wooden pieces form a platform or walkway that could have aided in shipbuilding. Image via Twitter/Garry Momber.

British Ocean Sediment Core Research facility curator Dr. Suzanne Maclachlan expressed excitement over the work being done on the site.

“It has been really exciting for us to assist the Trust’s work with such unique and historically important artifacts,” she said. “This is a great example of how the BOSCORF repository is able to support the delivery of a wide range of marine science.”

A treasure trove an ancient Mesolithic stone tools found at Bouldnor Cliff in the underwater landscape. Image via Twitter/Garry Momber.

A candidate for Atlantis?

Again, this area used to be inhabited by humans before it became submerged by rising sea levels, just like a similar site off the east coast of the United Kingdom known as “Doggerland”, where the same evidence of Mesolithic forests have been found along with evidence of hunting by humans of prehistoric animals such as woolly mammoths. In fact, it’s even referred to as a possible candidate for Atlantis, an advanced civilization that supposedly sank under the sea thousands of years ago.

While lobsters are credited with the discovery of the Bouldnor Cliff site, divers are responsible for finding “Doggerland”, which had been a vast landscape demonstrating that Great Britain used to be connected to continental Europe, before a tsunami wiped it out and turned it into a strange underwater world that we are now exploring and learning more about every day.

“When the data was first being processed, I thought it unlikely to give us any useful information, however as more area was covered it revealed a vast and complex landscape,” University of St. Andrews archaeological geophysicist Richard Bates said. “We have now been able to model its flora and fauna, build up a picture of the ancient people that lived there and begin to understand some of the dramatic events that subsequently changed the land, including the sea rising and a devastating tsunami.”

The Bouldnor Cliff site is part of the same landscape that ended up underwater several thousand years ago.

Internationally, the findings suggest a sophisticated Mesolithic site with social networks linked the Neolithic front in southern Europe or the north European plain. These were some of the last people to cross from the continental landmass to Great Britain before the formation of the North Sea. Interpretation of the results would help us understand the potential and character of international connections and help us locate comparable sites within the submerged palaeo-landscapes that are being discovered across the British and European Continental shelf.

The site stands as a testament to the power of the natural world and that any land we can stand on today can easily be lost to the sea. Such discoveries are also fleshing out the history and culture of our ancient ancestors, helping us learn more about ourselves and re-writing the history books in the process.

There truly never has been a greater time to be an archaeologist. You just never know what you will find beneath the soil, or in this case, beneath the ocean. If researchers can find ancient lands off the coast of Britain, it’s possible that we can find them anywhere.

See the Mesolithic wooden platform found at Bouldnor Cliff from the Maritime Archaeology Trust below:

Featured Image: Twitter/Garry Momber

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