How Radio 3 documented a drowned world below the Solent

Exploring a lost civilisation: a Mesolithic site at Bouldnor Cliff, which disappeared under the sea 8,000 years ago.

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“It’s very hard work sawing under water. It’s a crazy thing to do because you have no real leverage. Sometimes the saw just stays where it is, and you move up and down.”

Nigel Nayling, an archaeologist specialising in wetlands and submerged forests, is about to dive down into the Solent to chop some wood. He’s part of a small team of experts balanced on a boat off the south coast of England who are attempting to document a drowned world – a Mesolithic site at Bouldnor Cliff, which disappeared under sea 8,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.

In this episode of Sunday Feature (6.45pm, 3 June), the renowned Danish documentary maker Rikke Houd contrasts the efforts of Nayling and his colleagues with an ethereal, imagined version of the landscape they are trying to rediscover. The practical, almost humdrum sounds of people checking scuba equipment and splashing about run alongside beautiful, haunting music and a delicate narration from Houd herself.

She continually invites the listener to picture what life might have been like for the inhabitants of the vanished continent (the eastern part of which is known as “Doggerland”) that used to link the British Isles to mainland Europe, even as the archaeologists are plunging into the water to recover evidence from the wooded hills that now lie beneath the sea. A gradual warming of the climate and a cataclysmic tsunami eventually brought the sea level up so that the North Sea and the English Channel flowed together around Britain’s shores – “the first Brexit”, the divers joke.

Civilisations lost beneath the sea and mighty floods are everywhere in our mythology, from Atlantis to Noah. Houd carefully weaves fact and fiction together, gently reminding us that sea levels are rising once again and, like the erstwhile inhabitants of Doggerland, we are not psychologically equipped for what this will do to the landscape. Her voice is hypnotic, barely rising above the sound of the waves. “It’s odd, it’s as if you know the story,” she murmurs. “A submerged memory, like the landscape 11 metres below on the sea bed.” 

Sunday Feature: Under the Water
BBC Radio 3

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family