Skeffling: From Doggerland to Humberside
As part of the Environment Agency’s project to realign the north coast of the river Humber, providing new flood defences and extensive swathes of new wildlife habitat, we evaluated 430 ha of land near the East Yorkshire village of Skeffling.
The evaluation enabled an assessment of the landscape reaching back to the early post-Ice Age, encompassing c.12,000 years of activity and change.
The earliest land forms were identified by boreholes and represented Mesolithic estuarine and beach deposits (c. 6,500-6,000 BC). This is important as in the preceding, immediate post-glacial, period this area lay far inland of the coast, when much of the area now occupied by the North Sea formed a vast plain uniting the British Isles with continental Europe.
We call this plain ‘Doggerland’, a reference to the Dogger Bank, which was once a range of low hills. As sea levels rose following the retreat of the glaciers, these hills became an island and then a sand bank, as the plain was slowly inundated, gradually creating the North Sea approximately 8,000 years ago. Consequently, the late Mesolithic beaches and estuary deposits at Skeffling may show the process of creating the North Sea coast - a critical moment in the early land use of the area. Heavily disturbed and mixed sands and gravels provide evidence for storm deposits representing the earliest effects of coastal weather on the landscape and its human population.
Moving into later prehistory, we identified extensive deposits of Neolithic period peats (c. 4,000 BC) and a major palaeochannel - a river that flowed into the Humber estuary. Its fills contain waterlogged organic material that may unlock the story of how the land was farmed and settled into the late Iron Age.
A Roman settlement at Skeffling occupied the higher ground, whereas later medieval ditches and pits were found much closer to the waterline. It is known that several medieval villages lie under the water,evidence that the story of sea-level rise and land erosion is highly complex. To this day, the nearby peninsula of Spurn Point still fluctuates as it is eroded and re-formed by the tides; it once hosted the medieval port of Ravenser Odd, now also lost to the water.
The current farmland relies on a complex history of land reclamation and drainage, all of which has left substantial evidence in the archaeological record. As the latest alterations to the landscape take place, it is fitting they provide an opportunity to understand the transformation of the last 12,000 years and set future changes in context.