Doggerland Rising #2: Sinking Into the North Sea

— approx reading time: 8 minutes

In part 1 of Doggerland Rising, Justina Hart introduced her poem, which was commissioned following the 2016 Weatherfronts conference. Drawing on advice from experts at Durham University, she investigated the prehistory of Doggerland, the lowland plains inhabited by mesolithic people before sea level rise created the North Sea. In this concluding part, Justina completes the story of her research and reveals how the poem's characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.

Click on the map to read Doggerland Rising #1: Walking Across the North Sea.

Map showing hypothetical extent of Doggerland (c. 10,000 BC), which provided a land bridge between Great Britain and continental Europe
Source: Wikipedia (‘Doggerland’)
Artist: Max Naylor © 2008

Reading academic papers – a new vocabulary

Following the day at Durham University spent meeting with palaeo-scientists to discuss all things Doggerland, they emailed me numerous papers to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. With six weeks to go till the commission deadline, I focused on reading and journaling to help the ideas bubble up.

Studying an area where knowledge is expanding rapidly I found to be exciting and addictive. Although the Doggerland concept had emerged in the early twentieth century, it didn’t take off until the late 1990s when Professor Bryony Coles at the University of Exeter examined and wrote about the archaeology of Doggerland; and until researchers at Birmingham University (Vince Gaffney among them) in the 2000s used data from oil and gas drilling maps to chart the submerged landscape of the Southern North Sea.

I started a Doggerland journal in my writing program, Scrivener, jotting down salient points and ideas every day. Early on in reading the academic papers, one thing that struck me was the intriguing sounds of many of the scientific words and terms used to describe investigation into the North Sea. Here are a few:

aggradation, bathymetric, borehole data, eustatic, isopach, progradation

The mysterious half-understood (to me) quality of these words sparked my first draft for part I of my six-part poem. Scientific exploration provides an entry point both into the writing and into the Doggerland landscape:

Wade in with palaeogeographers,
archaeologists, palaeogeologists,
cartographers who swim
into the past for a living, 
who disturb and reconfigure depths.

Later on, I realised that these palaeo-scientist characters were part of the poem’s scaffolding that could be removed. The start of the finished part I of the poem now addresses the reader directly as scientist-investigator and everyman. He dips a hand into the North Sea and comes face-to-face with one of his Mesolithic ancestors:

A man hallooing as if to himself
paddles through shallow waters. 
He looks ahead, squinting;
he can almost see you, you him.

Letting go of research and sinking into the sea

Having immersed myself in the research, the next step was to let go of it – taking whatever I’d absorbed with me – and allow myself to sink into a place from which the poems might flow. That was the idea anyway. It felt risky: the research was a safety raft without which I could end up all at sea.

Giving myself the gift of this time to sink or swim was – as a jobbing writer/editor where paid tasks must take priority – the privilege of having a commission. What joy to be given licence to write and research poetry in prime client time. I unplugged from the internet for consecutive mornings and, in silence, held the idea of the sequence lightly in my mind, listening for what might surface.

I used others’ writing, music, photographs, and my own visits to natural landscapes to tickle the poetic synapses. Early on I found a jazz song that I took as a soundtrack for my project, Mi Negra Ave María, by Roberto Fonseca. Soaring and anthemic, it includes the lyrics:

And Atlantis can once again
Rise from the ocean
And the musical, beautiful sound will resound
And shake in every tree …

I read poetry with watery and icy themes (the polar wilderness gave a useful sense of remoteness and strangeness).

Druridge Bay, Northumberland
Photograph: Dr Louise Callard © 2017
https://www.dur.ac.uk/geography/staff/geogstaffhidden/?id=10523

I wanted to make a research trip to Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast as recommended by the Durham scientists, but it was too far afield. Instead, with help from my partner as driver, I went on a long madcap jaunt from Staffordshire down the M1 and M25 to one of my old stomping grounds on the Kent estuaries to photograph mudflats. I also took pictures of trees in bogs in Osmaston, Derbyshire. These landscapes became the stage set for the inundated Dogger Island.

Here is a note from my journal:

5 November 2016 – research trip to northern Kent: Visited the Medway, got excited on seeing marshes, then just beyond the sea at Allhallows and took pictures as the sun was going down. Landscape very flat and I was bitter around the ears, although it would have been 2-3 degrees warmer then [i.e. in the Mesolithic].

After a time, interesting things started cropping up in my journal. Here’s a piece of stream-of-consciousness writing:

The voices [in the poem] are strong. They are alive. They are speaking to us but also to themselves as though there’s this thin film of water called time between us … They talk to themselves and the meaning trickles to us across this film. They can kind of see us through this film too, and not.

“Doggerland swamps”
Photograph: Justina Hart © 2017
http://justinahart.com

The first character emerges – let’s call him Shaman

One day as I was writing my journal a character emerged urging ‘Follow me, follow me, follow me’. So I did, trusting his voice more as time went on. At first he acted as a guide, taking me back in time to the Mesolithic; later he made his way into the poem. It felt exciting channelling a Mesolithic character, as if I was bringing someone back from the dead whose bones lay under the North Sea. He seemed to relish the chance to live again.

This man, aged twenty-five or thirty, becomes the character we meet in section I, and who we follow through the poem. If he or someone like him did exist, perhaps he was a Mesolithic shaman because of his time-travelling and piloting abilities. Archaeologists know that such roles existed in tribal groups because they have unearthed objects such as deer skulls used as masks in spiritual ceremonies; they’ve also found standing stones or menhirs beneath the waves.

This is the kind of thing my nameless shamanic character whispered to me. It made its way into the poem in section II: 

‘Look in the water. Look in the pool I’m looking at. The pool that is brackish, filled with     saltwater, the river’s still. Giant oaks are asleep in it. I leave something there for you, a clue about me. I take off my necklace and cast it in, it’s like casting a spell – that one day we will come this way again.’

Drafting the whole sequence was like walking a tightrope over the North Sea. I had never written such a long poem in different voices before and did not know that I could complete each section until I had its first draft down.

So I navigated my imaginative North Sea – and the poem – by degrees: first I was a quarter of the way across, then a half, then three-quarters … Since each section had to come from deep down, as if from my own internal sea, each time it was a case of listening, having faith, holding my breath until at last I was rewarded with each poem’s content, form and language. All the sections had to tie together and tell a story as well, of course.

After writing the first four poems (out of the total six), I attended a small poetry festival in London, Second Light’s The Song of the Earth. I found the workshops by poets such as Jemma Borg and Hannah Lowe very helpful for renewing my inspiration, and the festival provided a much-needed break from my own company. I came back and wrote the last two sections.

Mesolithic red deer mask, discovered at Starr Carr, Yorkshire, 1951
Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sharing the poem – feedback and editing 

Had the poem succeeded? It felt to me that the commission had moved my poetry on, but the proof’s in the pudding. I sent the finished draft to fellow West Midlands poet, Sarah James, who generously read it, suggested tweaks and commented, “It all reads beautifully and feels very crafted and finished”. I was over the moon. The poet Myra Schneider kindly read and fed back in detail before I submitted the final version. “It’s a real achievement – a step forward,” she said. I am indebted to these poets and other readers.

Myra pointed out that the poem needed some linguistic fine-tuning to get it ‘as close to Anglo-Saxon as possible’, as this would be more in keeping with the prehistoric setting. So before filing, I spent a few hours scouring the poem for Renaissance and post-Renaissance words and concepts. I scrapped ‘lurid’ (mid-seventeenth century), replacing it with ‘violent pinks, blues, greens’. ‘Sulking’ (late eighteenth century) became ‘turned sour’, ‘unnavigable’ (early sixteenth century) became ‘where evil spirits hide’, and ‘foraminifera’ (mid-nineteenth century) was changed to ‘tiny sea animals’. A whole passage like:

Here I come: pushed from the delta’s mouth
into blue – blue is my element and green –
the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …

was transformed with simpler, more concrete language into:

Here I come: pushed from the river’s veins
into blue – blue is my dwelling place –
the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …

Myra also spotted an anachronistic use of the country names, ‘Germany, Holland, France’, in a refrain in part IV of the poem, which is voiced by the tribe’s ancestors. This started life as:

Yet once we were kings who strolled through
paradise to Germany, Holland, France.

Few readers might have noticed – and the rhythm worked well – but having put so much work in, it was important to get all the details right. I turned to Dr Jim Innes for help. ‘How might our Mesolithic ancestors have referred to these lands?’ I asked.

‘They would have had names for these areas I suppose, but we can’t know. I would perhaps have said something like ‘the eastern high ground beyond the plain’ and the same for Britain, only ‘western’. That doesn’t tell the reader exactly where though, so maybe … ‘the uplands beyond the eastern plain’ or similar.’

Here’s the final refrain:

Yet once we were kings who strolled through 
plains rich as paradise to the uplands beyond.

 I sent the finished draft to the Durham scientists for fact checking and so they could see what I’d made of the research. All good except Jim spotted I’d used the phrase ‘heading inland’ in section VI, when people would have had to cross water to get to Britain. Jim also checked the date in which I’d set the poem: 

‘The dates look fine. Our main radiocarbon date from Dogger peat at -27 metres depth is 8140 radiocarbon years ago, which comes out when calibrated as 9300-9000 calendar years ago. Other dates suggest that the Dogger island was finally fully submerged by about 8000 calendar years ago, or a little before.

Personal insights – leaving the Mesolithic

The Weatherfronts commission was the first time that I’d ever been paid to write poetry. Symbolically this was deeply important to me as I was being remunerated for writing something I love, and this made a real difference to my craft. Previously, I always fitted my fiction and poetry around the freelance writing and editing I do for commercial clients; now, for the first time, creativity could take centre stage.

Not surprisingly, focusing on my poetic craft during the best, most productive hours of the day meant that my poetry improved. I began to value my work as a poet more and started seeing it as on an equal footing with my client writing. I was able to set and rise to a more difficult poetic challenge than I’d otherwise have attempted. I had not felt such joy in any paid work I’ve done in years, and loved the luxury of the reading and generative time.

Collaborating with the Durham palaeo-scientists was another revelation and joy. The only careers advice I recall receiving at university was ‘Don’t go into academia’, and yet the researchers seemed to thoroughly enjoy their working lives. Thanks to Weatherfronts, I now know that I’d  welcome the chance to do other collaborative projects with researchers and universities in the future.

The collaboration completely changed the nature of my Doggerland poem. If I had attempted to write it without talking in-depth to the scientists, I believe that it would have looked very different. Gradual if dramatic climate change (coastal erosion, low-lying island nations at risk of submergence) and migration are more akin to what our Mesolithic ancestors were experiencing, and more akin to what we’re experiencing in the twenty-first century. The scientists helped me and the poem to take this focus.

By the end of the project, I began to envy our Middle Stone Age ancestors for the simpler rhythm of their lives, their multi-skilled resourcefulness, and even (medical advances aside), their quality of life. Pulling out of ancient time and leaping forward to the present day came as a wrench.

Find out more

You can read the full lyrics to Roberto Fonseca’s Mi Negra Ave MarÍa and play the track.

Explore the poets who gave Justina feedback: Sarah James and Myra Schneider. and Dr Jim Innes‘ research into human palaeoecology, particularly in relation to Mesolithic communities and their impact upon the environment.

And you can find out about Second Light Live workshops and publications.

There is more about Justina’s writing – poems, short stories, non-fiction, novels – at her website. Doggerland Rising and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.

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Doggerland Rising #1: Walking Across the North Sea

— approx reading time: 7 minutes

Our latest Members' Post comes from writer Justina Hart, one of five winners of commissions from Weatherfronts 2016. All the commissions from that and the 2014 event have now been brought together in a combined anthology, available as a free download from Cambria Books. In the first of two posts, Justina introduces how she collaborated with palaeo-scientists at Durham University – one of the Weatherfronts partners – and how the research she conducted with their help fed into the creative process.

A long time ago (approximately 9,000 to 9,500 years), a vast, low-lying and once-Edenic landmass off the east coast of England, known as Doggerland, connected Britain to mainland Europe. My Weatherfronts project was a long poem called Doggerland Rising, about a tribe forced to leave their homeland as the North Sea rose to swallow the last remaining island, Dogger Island.

Doggerland first came to the world’s attention when, in 1931, a commercial fishing vessel hauled in its nets off the East Anglian coast and discovered a Mesolithic antler harpoon inside. It wasn’t until the 1990s though that archaeologists began viewing marine environments and submerged forests as once inhabited landscapes. Scientific research into these landscapes has intensified since, concentrated at universities including Exeter and Birmingham.

This post is about how I collaborated with palaeo-scientists at one of Weatherfronts’ commissioning partners, Durham University, and how the research I conducted with their help fed into my creative process. It’s a case study with poetic leeway, which I hope might help or inspire others.

Weatherfronts and early ideas – Dogger what?

I’d never heard of Doggerland until I sat next to palaeo-scientist Dr Louise Callard at dinner at the Weatherfronts conference at Free Word in London in May 2016. The conference, the second in the Weatherfronts series, brought climate change writers/artists and scientists together. Louise was super enthusiastic about her summers spent aboard a big ship drilling boreholes into the seabeds off Britain and Ireland – she and her colleagues are working on the BRITICE-CHRONO project to map the last glacial maximum. A young woman’s working life so far removed from my own: I was intrigued to learn more.

As the wine flowed, Louise moved on to ancient people who might have inhabited these seas, and touched on lost lands. She mentioned Doggerland. The word ‘Dogger’ rang a faint bell from the shipping forecast, which holds a special place in the imagination for many of us.

I left dinner, my head filled with images of our ancient ancestors who might have drowned off England’s east coast, or survived submergence by trudging over shallow seas at low tide. In my mind’s eye I saw women, children and bearded men dressed in furs footslogging across a desolate, sea-whipped landscape. This vision resembled a cross between Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and the film of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I swapped the next session I’d booked and hotfooted it to Louise and Alison Cook’s workshop, Understanding the Ice.

Map showing hypothetical extent of Doggerland (c. 10,000 BC), which provided a land bridge between Great Britain and continental Europe
Source: Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doggerland
Artist: Max Naylor © 2008

Writing the proposal – what have I taken on?

My aim was to write a sequence of four to six poems ‘told in the voices of the ancient people of Doggerland as they witness and respond to rapid climate change’. My idea coalesced on the train on the way home. I would set it at the last possible point people could have realistically inhabited Dogger Island – without needing to grow wings or fins or build better boats. This would relate to the current global situation where people are experiencing climate change inter-generationally and even in individual lifetimes.

To fill in the knowledge gaps in my proposal, I did some Googling. The links focused on populist myths and fears – apocalyptic scenarios that would be ripe for Hollywood treatment: ‘Doggerlanders decimated by tsunami’ (a reference to the Storegga slide tsunami which hit Doggerland around 8,000 years ago); ‘Was Doggerland the real Atlantis?’. To write the poem, I was going to require proper help with research.

To win a commission, writers had to include details of support or further information they might require, such as ‘contact with one or more of the speakers at the event’. Spending a weekend surrounded by scientists was a first for me and I was excited. I also wanted to write a poem that would not, perhaps could not, exist without Weatherfronts or the input that scientists might provide. So I said that I wanted to work with the Durham University Geography Department scientists, some of whom I’d met at Weatherfronts.

But would the scientists, who spend their working lives weighing up data, look askance at the idea of collaborating with a poet who, on some level, would be making things up? Instead of assessing the amount of foraminifera in ancient mud, say, or counting grains of ancient pollen, would they baulk at using their hard-won research to make imaginative jumps?

Making the links – the muddle of ancient time

I heard that I’d won one of the commissions on the day the Brexit referendum news broke. It struck me as spooky since this project was about the moment that Britain broke physically from mainland Europe in around 8,500 BP (‘before the present’).

Over the summer I emailed the Durham scientists I’d met at Weatherfronts and did a Skype interview with Professor Harriet Bulkeley. Not much happened while most of them were doing 10-hour shifts onboard ship in the middle of the sea. “I’m heading offshore again,” Louise emailed, “to spend 52 days in front of some glaciers in NE Greenland. We will be ~80º N and therefore will have very limited communication with the world.” Right. I was spending the summer on my narrowboat in a marina in Lichfield, Staffs.

Before she went, Louise emailed some photographs of a small stretch of exposed ancient forest in Druridge Bay, Northumberland, as visual inspiration. “When sea levels began to rise this forest was drowned and buried by sand,” she wrote. “It occurred around 6,000 to 8,000 thousand years ago, before which land was possibly connected to Doggerbank when the sea level was lower. Some fortuitous rough weather has removed the overlying sand to reveal this forest. Apparently you can see footprints in it, but I’m not sure.” The visuals set the poetic cogs whirring, although I couldn’t make out the ancient footprints either.

Durham University also sent me a first paper to provide context: Mark White’s Things to do in Doggerland when you’re dead, which focused on Neanderthals in Britain. The paper was so brilliant that I became fixated for a week or two, not realising that it was set in the Palaeolithic, many tens of thousands years earlier. I got carried away for a brief moment with the idea of writing dramatic monologues in the voice of Neanderthals.

I had fun Googling background information for poems that I wasn’t destined to write: ‘Did Neanderthals have names?’, ‘Did Neanderthals speak and use language?’ It was silly season and my mind threw up numerous Neanderthal-inspired poems and jokes. How many Neanderthals does it take to change a lightbulb? Why did the Neanderthal cross the road? The mistake shows that linking up with scientists and asking those basic contextual questions can be vital. Also, if you’re dabbling in prehistory, check your dates first.

Here’s a fragment in which I imagined Neanderthals experiencing rising sea levels:

We have our own sounds for water, run,
higher ground, drowning –
but the same sounds as you for fear …
Ancient tree roots at Druridge Bay, Northumberland
Photograph: Dr Louise Callard © 2017
https://www.dur.ac.uk/geography/staff/geogstaffhidden/?id=10523 “The forest and peats found at a different locations along Druridge Bay have been dated between 8000-6000 yrs BP (before present). Sea-level rose and flooded the site probably around 5000-4000 yrs BP. Dogger Bank is at a lower elevation so was flooded by the sea much earlier.”

A first poem – bedding down with Mesolithic tribes

Things improved once I knew that I’d be writing about people because this would give the sequence more scope and variety. My poem would be set firmly in the Middle Stone Age period, the Mesolithic.

Our Mesolithic ancestors were surprisingly advanced. Settled in encampments, they had a wide range of skills and led a full, rich life with, in Doggerland’s heyday, a balanced diet of meat, fish, fruit, nuts and seeds. The temperature would also have been slightly warmer than in today’s Britain.

Before I’d conducted any formal interviews with the scientists, I wrote a first complete poem. It arrived, excitingly enough, almost fully formed.

This poem is a lament in the voice of a young woman. The sea having claimed her land and drowned her people, she is grieving for the fact that she won’t be able to have children. At the end, she walks into the sea, embracing the water as having life. She claims as her own the animated, dancing sea, as if all nature springs from her feminine life force. Doggerland – and climate change writing – had started to become a canvas for exploring personal material which I had resisted writing about in other, perhaps more obvious, ways. Here is a fragment from the last verse of an early draft of the poem:

The waves feel cold but they’re soft too
like fur. This new world moves, is alive
– each tear, each sea drop is alive.
Look, see all my babies dance!

This poem did not ultimately fit into the final sequence. But after finishing the Weatherfronts commission, I turned it into a song with lyrics and a melody, and then recorded it in a professional studio. It became my first recorded song.

Face-to-face with scientists – clarity at last

I was lucky to be invited along with one of the other commissioned writers, Sarah Thomas, to form part of a panel event at the Durham Book Festival in October 2016. This was exciting in its own right and, with an early December deadline looming, great for focusing the mind. The extra night’s accommodation granted for research purposes proved invaluable for the making of my poem. 

The panel event happened on a Sunday. On the Monday, I spent the whole day on campus doing interviews and getting to know Durham, which I’d not visited before. I talked to Louise and to Dr Dave Roberts, followed by Dr Jim Innes, Dr Mark Brigland and Dr Mark White. I’m indebted to them all.

Since disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 loom large in our own consciousness, we’re inclined to project our current climate woes onto our ancient ancestors. Right away the Durham scientists steered me from such apocalyptic and other populist scenarios: when the Doggerland tsunami hit there was no chance of there being any people left on Dogger Island. Rising sea levels meant that they would have been migrating away for centuries.

Reconstructed Mesolithic round-house. Replica of a 10,000 year old round-house which was excavated from a nearby cliff-top site.
Source: Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howick_house Photograph: Andrew Curtis © 2005

They also gave me an insight into essential topics, such as:

  • rates and levels of inundation
  • changes to the landscape and vegetation
  • Mesolithic people’s skills and tools
  • Their lifestyle and spiritual views
  • Their ability to cope with rapid climate change.

At the start of the day I had a vague picture of Doggerland 9,000 years ago. But as we progressed, I began to pick up the very first inklings of the inter-tidal, estuarine backdrop and the resourceful people who would populate my poem.

Meeting face-to-face also enabled us to build ongoing relationships. And I think crucially, actual contact with scientists on the ground and hearing their passion for their subject fuelled mine. They were not at all fazed by the idea of helping a poet. Mark Brigland told me he read the Saturday poem in the Guardian every week. That was very humbling. I was off the starting blocks and away.


In the second part of her post, Justina completes the story of her research and the drafting of Doggerland Rising – revealing how her characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.

Wikipedia gives good accounts of Doggerland and the Mesolithic period in Europe and elsewhere.

Mark White’s 2006 paper, Things to do in Doggerland when you’re dead, (World Archaeology, 38 4), is available from Durham University Research Online.

You can discover more about the BRITICE-CHRONO research into the ice sheet that once covered most of the British Isles, which Louise Callard and colleagues have been working on, at the project homepage

Justina read excerpts from her finished poem, Doggerland Rising, at the 2017 Hay Festival and you can listen here: 

And her full poem and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.

There is more about Justina’s writing – poems, short stories, non-fiction, novels – at her website.

Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking... 

"When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?" 

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.