Parish Summary: North Sea

This summary is very much an overview of the large quantity of information held for the area, and only selected examples of sites and finds in each period are given. It has been beyond the scope of the project to carry out detailed research into the historical background, documents, maps or other sources, but we hope that the Parish Summaries will encourage users to refer to the detailed records, and to consult the bibliographical sources referred to below.  Feedback and any corrections are welcomed by email to heritage@norfolk.gov.uk

It may seem strange to have a summary of the archaeology of the southern North Sea off the coast of Norfolk. One would expect to find, of course, the sites of shipwrecks, and indeed there are a large number of these (see below), lost both by natural disaster and by enemy action in the two World Wars. Given that Norfolk’s coastline has been eroding for centuries, it is also to expected that some old settlements (and their churches) will have been washed away (see also below).

 

Photograph of a Mesolithic harpoon found on the Leman and Ower Bank, Doggerland, North Sea. Photograph from MODES.

Photograph of a Mesolithic harpoon found on the Leman and Ower Bank, Doggerland, North Sea. Photograph from MODES. (© NCC)

The sea has been fished since the earliest times, and curiosities have occasionally been caught up in fishing nets. However, when in 1931 the trawler Colinda dredged up a Mesolithic harpoon head made of carved red deer antler (NHER 11171), and the peat from which it came was found to contain the pollen of mixed oak woodland, a whole new area of potentially rich unexplored archaeology was opened up.  

Photograph of a possible Mesolithic harpoon found in the North Sea. it is thought this may be a fake.

Photograph of a possible Mesolithic harpoon found in the North Sea. it is thought this may be a fake.  (© NCC)

It has long been known that Britain was once joined to the Continent, and that great floods and inundations over thousands of years gradually eroded away the land bridge until it was finally broken about 8,400 years ago. The finding of the harpoon head and the pollen evidence, together with a systematic survey around the Danish coast and a massive programme of maritime geophysical mapping of the sea bed for oil and gas drilling, indicate that ‘Doggerland’ (the name subsequently given to the area), may have been Mesolithic Europe’s 'Garden of Eden', rich in flora and teeming with game. The possibility of hidden but well-preserved archaeological evidence of this extensive submerged prehistoric landscape is tantalising, partly because so little is known of the Mesolithic. The population at the time was sparse and formed of small groups often on the move, with very few permanent settlements or structures. On mainland Britain, a Mesolithic presence is usually signalled in the archaeological record by nothing more than a scatter of flint flakes. Moreover, the dryland landscape inhabited by the last hunter-gatherers has been transformed by thousands of years of farming – by land clearance, field boundaries, ploughing and settlement. Many of the Mesolithic sites we do find are marginal ones, surviving only because they are on coastal fringes, in wetlands, or on remote uplands of little interest to the farmer. Indeed, most of Britain may have been marginal compared with the wide, wet low-lying plains of Doggerland, an area the size of Wales, now beneath fifty metres of water. Technological advances in the future may reveal a wealth of information from the period and contribute enormously to our understanding of it. 

During 2008, a Dutch amateur archaeologist Jan Meulmeester found 30 palaeolithic hand axes in gravel dredged from the seabed eight miles (13km) off Great Yarmouth and deposited at a wharf at Flushing in the Netherlands.  Bones and teeth were also recovered.  These finds (NHER 51516) have been described as the single most important find of Ice Age material from below the North Sea, and English Heritage is working with its Dutch counterpart to evaluate the finds and to develop a research programme for the submerged pre-history of the North Sea.    

Photograph of a post medieval pot dredged up by a fishing boat in the North Sea.

  Photograph of a post medieval pot dredged up by a fishing boat in the North Sea. (© NCC)

Other objects dredged from the sea bed by fishing vessels include a Bronze Age stone axe hammer (NHER 11180) from Woolpack Sands off Holme next the Sea, an Iron Age gold coin (NHER 12071), a medieval copper alloy cauldron (NHER 11214) and stone mortar (NHER 17325) and post medieval pottery vessels (NHER 11213, 13647 and 13648). A Late Roman coin (NHER 11192) was found in a three and a half pound cod caught off Bacton in 1971. In 1993 a giant anchor (NHER 29925) was dredged up on Burnham Flats eleven miles off Brancaster. The anchor had a wooden stock and lettering which may suggest Sunderland as an origin. It was dated to the 18th century and is the property of the National Maritime museum, although is on display in St Nicholas’ Chapel, King's Lynn.

Off Cromer is the site of Shipden medieval settlement and its church, St Peter's (NHER 11727). By 1336, part of the churchyard had been washed away by the sea, and the church had gone the same way by about 1400. The site of St Peter's is somewhere in the vicinity of the lifeboat station at the end of Cromer pier. Local people say that Church Rock, sometimes uncovered at very low tides, marks the site of the church.

The site of Little Waxham medieval settlement (NHER 11909), lost through coastal erosion, now lies off the coast of Sea Palling. The settlement's church, St Margaret's was probably washed away in 1383, as the list of Rectors ends abruptly in that year.

Off Overstrand is the site of the medieval church of St Martin (NHER 13136), which along with much of the rest of the parish was washed away by the sea in 1399. Off the coast at Sidestrand are the sites of medieval St Martin's church and St Michael's church (NHER 13202), long since eroded away.

There are some 162 shipwrecks recorded on the sea bed off Norfolk, clearly far too many to document individually in a summary such as this, so a broad selection will be given. All of the wrecks date from the post medieval to modern periods and their details, where known, are marked on a 1957 Admiralty chart. This is not to say that no vessels sank before then, just that those which did have not yet been discovered.

The oldest recorded wrecks are 19th century, and include HMS Invincible (NHER 18700), a seventy four gun ship that sank in 1801, (though the site could also be the cargo ship Nubia, which sank after a collision in 1915), and the ship Brownrigg (NHER 18695), which was lost in 1888. Some ships were lost to accidents in the early 20th century, like SS Osprey (NHER 18692), which sank after colliding with SS St Dunston in 1904.

World War One saw an increase in lost shipping through enemy action. SS Kirkham Abbey (NHER 18714) and SS Fulgers (NHER 18717) were both torpedoed by U-boats. SS Ole Bull (NHER 18728), HM Trawler Cantatrice (NHER 18732) and SS Lanterna (NHER 18745) were all sunk by mines. The fishing boat Success (NHER 18746) was captured by a U-boat and scuttled in 1916.

A few vessels were lost in the inter-war years, including the Lighter Crocus (NHER 18721), which sank in 1922 and the ship Georgia (NHER 18751), which sank in 1927. However, by far the greatest loss of shipping came in World War Two, when dozens of ships were lost to enemy action. SS Kenton (NHER 18701), the Tug Caroline Miller (NHER 18760), SS Minorca (NHER 18770), the Norwegian ship Fikhaug (NHER 18771), HMS Vortigern (NHER 18772), SS Shearwater (NHER 18718) and the ship Teddington (NHER 18749) all fell prey to torpedoes, either from E-boats or submarines. The merchant vessel Upminster (NHER 18743), HM Trawler Nogi (NHER 18750), SS Salvus (NHER 18757), the paddle steamer Kylemore (NHER 18778) and HMS Dungeness (NHER 18717) were all bombed or otherwise destroyed by enemy aircraft. SS Corea (NHER 18748), SS Jevington (NHER 18759), the tanker Pankfield (NHER 18764), the ship Clan Morrison (NHER 18769) and HM Trawler Arley (NHER 18777) were mined. The Germans had their losses too. Divers found a crashed but intact twin-engined German bomber (NHER 17517) off the coast of Happisburgh in 1981. 

Many other ships sunk in World War Two are simply marked as lost, an example being HMS Actuosity (NHER 18731), without any information as to the nature of their demise.

Peacetime shipping losses since the war have become much lower, with just a few sinkings, an example being SS Marsworth (NHER 18709), which went down in 1953 after colliding with a French steamer.

It should be pointed out that these are just selected examples of shipwrecks, and ones to which a name can be given with some certainty. The vast majority of recorded wrecks have no name and have merely been noted during various marine surveys over the years. Some may not even be wrecks. Happisburgh Foul Object (NHER 18726) is what appears to be a large mound of stone blocks on the sea bed just over two miles offshore. It has variously been interpreted as the wreck of a ship that sank with a cargo of stone in 1862, the harbour wall of an eroded medieval village, the ruins of a castle-like building, a Roman Shore Fort and a natural formation. Incidentally, its name comes not from a subjective opinion of its appearance, but due to the fact that it has ‘fouled’ fishing nets in the past.

Piet Aldridge (NLA), 15 October 2007.

David Gurney (NLA), 18 November 2008.

 

Further Reading

Coles, B.J. 1988. Doggerland: a speculative survey. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 64, 45-81

Coles, B.J. 1999. Doggerland’s loss and the Neolithic. In: B. Coles, J. Coles and M. Schon Jorgenson (eds) Bog Bodies, Sacred Sites and Wetland Archaeology, 51-57. WARP Occasional Paper 12. Exeter

Coles, B.J., 2000. Doggerland: the cultural dynamics of a shifting coastline. In. K. Pye and  S.R.L. Allen (eds) Coastal and Estuarine Environments: Sedimentology, Geomorphology and Geoarchaeology, 393-401. Geological Society Publication No. 175. The Geological Society, London.

Gaffney, V., 2007. Doggerland: lost world of the Stone Age hunters. Currents Archaeology 207, 12-19.

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