The following Afterword appears at the end of my mesolithic fantasy novel The Drowning Land, available today on Amazon and from all good bookshops.
Note that the Afterword, while explaining the scientific basis for the novel, also contains some spoilers — beware!
The real Summer Lands
In 1931 the trawler Colinda, fishing near the Ower Bank off the Norfolk coast, hauled up a lump of peat containing a barbed antler point that had once adorned a mesolithic fishing spear — the same spearpoint that Edan lost in the Legu river.
The find was the first insight into the lives of the ancient people who once lived in Doggerland — the place that I have called The Summer Lands.
During the last ice age (more properly the Last Glacial Maximum), what is now the North Sea was dry land, connecting Britain to France in a broad swathe from the English Channel on up. At its largest extent, up to around eighteen thousand years ago (18,000 BP — before present), it stretched as far north as Shetland. Back then, this Doggerland (the name was coined in the 1990s by Professor Bryony Coles, in honour of the Dogger Bank, which was in turn named for the Dutch dogger cod-fishing boats of the 17th century) was a cold expanse of tundra, inhabited by mammoths and neanderthals whose bones are still being plucked from the seafloor today.
Ten thousand years later, at the time this novel is set, Doggerland had become a realm of low marshes and gravel banks, constantly threatened by the encroaching sea, running from the channel islands to roughly the level of the Humber. In the south, the Thames and the Rhine joined together to flow through the Dover straits in what has been called the "Channel River". In the north, a rich coastal landscape of bays, inlets, marshes, and rivers, created what may have been one of the richest hunting grounds in mesolithic (that's the middle stone age) Europe.
It's possible that Doggerland might have been slowly covered by rising sea levels over hundreds or thousands of years, but there is another theory. About 8200 BP, there were a series of massive undersea landslides at a place called Storegga, just off the course of Norway. The landslides created a mega-tsunami in the North Sea, which rushed southwards and consumed the low-lying Doggerland, washing away its gravel and marsh terrain forever (permanently?).
Over the twenty years following Professor Cole's naming of Doggerland, dedicated scientists, working with the Sea Palaeolandscapes Project (what is now the ERC Europe's Lost Frontiers project), mapped great swathes of this lost landscape. By 2007 they had amassed enough information about it to feature in a special episode of Channel 4's Time Team called "Britain's Drowned World".
Which is where I came in, and The Drowning Land began.
The Time Team special filled my mind with ideas. I was struck with a singular image of a small group fleeing the oncoming waves. I imagined a fantastic fantasy world — a prehistoric Atlantis — consumed by this catastrophe. I thought of Tír na nÓg, the land beneath the waves; Avalon; Hy Brasil; and the Lowland Hundred (Cantre'r Gwaelod) that is supposed to lie under the waves of Cardigan Bay, and which probably inspired Susan Cooper's Lost Land. Tir Na Nóg made me think in turn of the Fomorians, the mythological first race of Ireland, misshapen giants who came from under the sea to fight the first human settlers. The Fomorians were portrayed in comic epic Sláine as monstrous fish creatures who demanded human sacrifice and human tears for their one-eyed King Balor, who also stood in for the devil in 1985's Dragon Warriors, a paperback-size roleplaying game that had a massive influence on me when I was growing up. I also thought about Robert Holdstock's chilling The Fetch, another fable of deep time. From such varied roots, a novel can grow.
It took a while. Other projects distracted me, and it wasn't until the Time Team special was repeated in 2011 that my vague ideas started to come together. As soon as I started to sketch out the plot for the novel, I knew that, even though I was writing a fantasy, I wanted it to be as scientifically accurate a fantasy as I could make it.
What followed was, for an armchair-bound writer such as myself, an epic journey of research. I visited neolithic and mesolithic sites in Jersey, which was itself once a hill in Doggerland, and studied the hundreds of artefacts gathered in the States of Jersey museum. Chantal Conneller, now at the University of Newcastle, was kind enough to show me her dig site at Les Varines, and to share some of her papers with me, while James Dilley (of Ancientcraft.co.uk) ran a flint-knapping evening and showed me how to make cordage from grass and glue from birch sap, as well as giving me technical advice on the novel. James also made a reconstruction of the Bad Dürrenberg wolf headdress, which he wore when I met him, and which you may recognise on Phelan's head. Dr David Chamberlain of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh advised me on plant life. All the factual errors in the novel are, naturally, mine and not theirs.
The rest of this Afterword is a summary of some of that research; an exploration of the science behind the novel.
The people of the Summer Lands
Edan's tribe typifies the sort of hunter-gatherer group that made Doggerland their home: small, closely related, and mobile. Similar groups on the European mainland left shell caches, temporary camps, and coastal settlements at the same date, so it's easy to imagine that Edan's tribe would have done the same. They do differ from many recorded groups in one significant way, which is that they move inland in winter, and to the coast in summer. The archaeological record suggests that the opposite was more common, because the shore, with its supplies of fish and — most importantly — shellfish, provided a reliable source of food in the winter. My tribe, however, driven inland by the relentlessly rising sea, seeks the shelter of the wood in winter.
The mesolithic was a time of transition. The climate was growing warmer and wetter. The megafauna of the ice age had vanished. These changes sparked new technologies: bows, microliths (fine flint tools), fishing spears, the domestication of dogs. Eventually, these changes came together in the Neolithic Revolution, which brought farming, domesticated animals, tomb building, cities, and religion.
The people of the Summer Lands are in the midst of this transition. The Grass People make unleavened bread from wild grains — they are on their way to developing agriculture. The Daesani have tamed dogs, and have welded many small tribes together into something like a society, and built villages. When they move west into the British isles they would likely become one of the mysterious monument building peoples that filled the landscape with burial mounds and tumuli. The unnamed tribe inflicting the threefold death on the boy at the edge of the lake in Chapter 16 are the ancestors of the same tradition that put Lindow Man into a Cheshire peat bog at the end of the Iron Age, six thousand years later.
Although these various groups have quite different cultures, they have pretty much the same phenotype — short, dark-skinned, dark-haired, and blue-eyed. This is the body type of Cheddar Man, a prototypical Britain from around 8,000 BP, which was recently revealed by DNA analysis. If you want to know what Maccus or Kaman might have looked like, turn to Alfons and Adrie Kennis' reconstruction of Cheddar Man.
But, of course, there is another people in The Summer Lands, Tara's people, the Trolls, where do they come from?
It has been suggested that Doggerland might have been one of the last footholds of Neanderthals in Europe, perhaps even later than 28,000 BP, the date of the last attested finds from Gibraltar. Some of the earliest finds recovered from Doggerland were remnants of this Neanderthal population, mammoth teeth, bone fishhooks, and stone tools. Similar finds have been emerging in much larger quantities over the last decade from the Netherland beach of Zandmotor, a piece of reclaimed land made out of 21 million cubic meters of soil dredged from the bottom of the North Sea, a unique window into the archaeology that remains hidden beneath the waves.
The People are not Neanderthals, however, but their descendants. Over the past decade, genetic evidence for interbreeding between archaic and modern humans — specifically between modern humans, Neanderthals, and the Denisovans (who lived across Asia) — has increased, with some studies suggesting that as much as 20% of Neanderthals DNA may have survived in modern humans. It seems reasonable to assume that over the period after the Neanderthals became extinct, different groups may have retained a greater or smaller proportion of Neanderthal traits.
While there is no scientific evidence that a physiologically distinct half-neanderthal might have existed as late as 8,000 BP, let alone in Doggerland, the folklore of North-Western Europe abounds with Trolls and Ogres and Faerie races — creatures that are almost human, but not quite; just a little larger, a little stronger, a little other. The Jötnar of Norse mythology and the Fomorians of Ireland are similar creatures. These legends might have originated from a distant folk memory of the Neanderthals and their descendants, hence my Summer Lands Trolls, who are humans with a strong heritage of Neanderthal traits.
Amongst the Neanderthal traits that I chose to represent in Tara's People are: a broad nose, a large and stocky build, a wider mouth with bulky molars, a strong healing capacity, a shoulder joint less well adapted to spear throwing, and body structure better for sprinting than endurance running.
It has been suggested that Neanderthals could not make nasal sounds, and to pronounce a variety of vowels. Although this is far from settled science, it pleased me to imagine the People as using signs to supplement their speech. As can be seen in the book, however, much of this is cultural rather than genetic — Tara can pronounce the Tribe's speech perfectly well once she is used to it.
Another Neanderthal trait that I gave to Tara was pale skin and red hair. The BCN2 gene, which in modern humans is associated with light skin and hair, is 60% of Neanderthal origin. Similarly, Neanderthal DNA shows a variant of the MC1R gene — which controls hair colour — associated with red hair. Not all Neanderthals will have had pale skin and red hair, but it seems possible that these traits may have entered the modern human population from the Neanderthals that they interbred with. As the final chapter shows, Ailsa — Edan and Tara's daughter — has inherited her mother's colouring and her father's build. In time, perhaps, her own descendants might be the red-haired Celts of Western Europe.
ERC Europe's Lost Frontiers has identified several significant features on the seafloor, some of which have been given names, and some of which appear in the Summer Lands.
The largest of them is Outer Silver Pit Lake, a huge depression just to the south of the Dogger Bank, which would have been a lake in Edan's time, fed by rivers flowing in from the south and out to the north. It is this lake that Edan and Tara skirt as they head south towards the Grass People. The Fomor men live on its eastern shore, and the Legu (my name) runs from it to the sea.
South of the Silver Pit was another lake, Tanrid (my name again) where the Thames and the Rhine met. Edan and Tara, travelling south from the Grass People, come to the north bank of the Rhine and then follow it to Tanrid. Here, the two rivers joined to become one, the Channel River (or Fleuve Manche), which flowed out through the Straits of Dover, then turned west. Its bed is what we now call the English Channel, and some of the hills rising from its flood plains are now the Channel Islands.
The Channel River flowed through the narrowest point of Doggerland, where the huge cliffs of Dover and Calais rose 15 to 45 meters high on either side. It is this region, a vast plain of gravel beds scoured out by the floodwaters of post-glacial lakes as long as 180,000 BP ago, that I call the Twins. Beyond this, the Stone Forest, where mudflats expose the preserved remains of trees from an earlier age of Doggerland. A very similar drowned forest can be found on the beach at Redcar, North Yorkshire, along with the ubiquitous mammoth teeth and mesolithic flints. This preserved forest was recorded in the 19th Century, and recently re-exposed by the storm known as The Beast from the East, in 2018. There's no evidence that such a forest existed in the mudflats south of the Dover Straits, but it is certainly possible that there was.
Even the cliffs that Tara and Edan struggle their way up at the very end of the novel are a real place, the dramatic coloured cliffs of Hunstanton, on the Norfolk coast. These vividly striped formations were laid down towards the end of the Early Cretaceous (108-99 million years ago). The cliffs now are perhaps 20m high but would have been higher in Tara's and Edan's time.
There is one notable feature of the Summer Lands which doesn't appear on any of the Lost Frontiers Project's maps, because it is entirely of my own invention — Dentaltos. Dentaltos lies at the location of the real Dogger bank. The Dogger bank is a moraine, a huge ridge of gravel, rocks, and other material that was once carried there by a glacier. It would never have had steep cliffs or rocky shores, and it certainly wouldn't have had a sea-stack like the Tooth of the North. Features like that certainly do exist elsewhere, of course; Dentaltos was based on the Old Man of Hoy, on Orkney, which I visited as a teenager.
No record remains of the language spoken by the mesolithic people of north-western Europe. Since the 19th Century, extensive efforts have been made to reconstruct some of the ancient root languages from which modern European tongues descend — Proto-Indo-European, and Proto-Celtic — but these still only take us back to Iron Age, when the Indo-European family of languages spread east from its roots in Anatolia. Before that date, the people of north-western Europe would have spoken Old European languages (also known as Paleo-European languages), of which almost no trace remains.
As those people spread out across Doggerland, and the lands surrounding it, Old European was replaced with new languages from the east. These, in turn, became Proto-Celtic, then Celtic, then Goidelic (Gaelic) and Brittonic (the language of ancient England). Now, the only traces that remain of the original Old European are a few river names and a handful of unusual words in Gaelic, Welsh, Irish, Breton, Cornish, and Manx (the last two of which are themselves now dead languages).
In the absence of Old European, I drew on the Celtic languages for my names. Tara is named after the Hill of Tara in Ireland, the legendary seat of the High King, and probably derives from a Proto-Indo-European word for 'star'; Phelan is also an Irish name, and means 'wolf'. Cual and Uchdryd are Welsh names, while Edan (little fire) and Brina (defender) are Irish again. Eburakon comes from the Brittonic "yew tree place".
For the words that appear in Tara's language lesson in Chapter Seven, I tried my hand at reconstructing words from the surviving Brittonic languages, and a Proto-Celtic word list courtesy of the University of Wales. For example, Tara's thank-you — "Meru Tu" — derives from the Cornish "Meru Ras", the Breton "Merasta", and the Proto-Celtic "tū" (you). The hand-signs come from modern British Sign Language because, in the end, you can only invent so much.
There are many more tidbits of scientific information that went into my creation of The Summer Lands, but hopefully what I've presented here gives you a view of the science behind the story. If it has whetted your appetite, you could do worse than visit the ERC Europe's Lost Frontiers project website and take a look at their map of Doggerland for yourself, browse the videos on Ancientcraft, or dive into one of the scholarly books on Doggerland published over the last decade.
Hopefully what you find there will inspire you as it did me.