What is meant with Marine Heritage?

Marine archaeological heritage: more than just shipwrecks

Marine archaeological heritage often only makes one think of (the approximated 3 million) shipwrecks that lie underwater worldwide. However, it encompasses a much broader spectrum: namely all tracks of human presence of a cultural, historical or archaeological character that is fully or partly situated underwater. In other words, it also concerns old coastal defenses, remains of settlements and economic activity, artefacts such as arrowheads and bone fragments and even prehistoric landscapes. The most of these archaeological relics lie buried under the present day sea bed.

History of the North Sea

During the peak of the latest ice age, approximately 20 000 years ago, the sea level was more than 120 meters lower than today and large parts of the North Sea were then land. This stretch of land was intensively populated. When the temperature rose and the ice began to melt, the North Sea gradually filled again. The discovery of archaeological sites in the North Sea from thousands, sometimes even tens of thousands of years ago, clearly illustrated that not only artefacts and structures but even whole landscapes can be preserved underwater. The condition of bone as well as of wood and plant remains is often exceptional, a direct results of the water saturated conditions, the lack of oxygen in the environment (which slows down decomposition) and the constant temperature after burial.

The oldest flints found in the North Sea date back to the Middle Palaeolithic and are between 70.000 and 100.000 years old. More recent findings from the Mesolithic (10.000 to 5.000 years old) consist of crafted flints and bone tools, food remains and wood structure, as well as remains of fireplaces and graves. One of the most famous sites in the North Sea is Bouldnor Cliff just off the south coast of England. But by far the most localised Mesolithic sites are situated in the Baltic Sea. A well-known example is Tybrind Vig along the coast of the Danish island of Funen, where not only canoes, paddles, and fish hooks were found but also human burials and remains of mammals, shells and fish.

Human fossils

In 2001, a unique discovery was made between the sediments extracted from the seabed of the North Sea, 15 km off the coast of Zeeland (Netherlands): a small skull fragment of a Neanderthal. It is estimated to be at least 40 000 years old. It is the first and as of yet the only time that a human fossil of such old age is found in the North Sea.

Fossil bones of land mammals are fished out of the southern North Sea regularly. One of the most spectacular findings was made in 2005, when a mammoth skull was dredged up near Hoek van Holland. The skeleton is likely to have been released from the soil as a result of dredging in the Eurogeul and subsequently fell into a fishing net. It is one of the largest and most intact fossil bone samples found in the North Sea.