Going home to Doggerland

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If you are of Western European descent, there’s a strong possibility that you once had ancestors who lived in an area of Europe called Doggerland. If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself that you’ve never heard of Doggerland and haven’t the faintest idea where it is, I can help you.

Doggerland was a stretch of land which now lies submerged beneath the North Sea between the United Kingdom and continental Europe. During the Ice Age, this area of land was exposed and was likely a fertile area for growing crops and raising livestock. As the ice began to melt, rising sea levels eventually turned Doggerland into a few scattered island before it would eventually disappear beneath the Black Sea in its entirety.  Here’s a map of what the area might have once looked like.

Doggerland map
Doggerland” by Max NaylorOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

As you can see, one of the interesting features of this map is that the Thames and the Rhine once both shared the same outlet into what is now the English Channel before Doggerland was submerged by the rising waters from the melting ice.

Over the years, trawling fishing vessels have dredged up interesting prehistoric finds from the area of Doggerland in the Black Sea such as the remains of animals, plants, and humans as well as many tools and weapons contemporary with the time period in which Doggerland would have been inhabited.

However, truly exploring Doggerland and creating accurate maps of the area has been nearly impossible because of the simple fact that it lies submerged.  However, new technology is changing this.

Just this September, the University of Bradford announced plans to take detailed readings of Doggerland and use that to construct a three dimensional map of the area. The team of archeologists, biologists, and computer scientists also plan to collect deep sea core samples from various parts of Doggerland in the hopes of being able to learn more about this area using DNA testing to learn about the plants and animals that would have once inhabited Doggerland.

As for your ancestors, when the water started creeping into Doggerland, it’s likely they left for less soggy pastures in either the modern United Kingdom or continental Europe.

The Malleability of History

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“A morsel of genuine history is a thing so rare as to be always valuable.”

– Thomas Jefferson, September 8, 1817


Historia by Nikolaos Gysis (1892)
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As a society, we often nurse the belief that history is a definite thing that can never be changed. We teach in our schools and classrooms that this is ‘how it happened’ in the past, and other possibilities are unlikely at best and impossible at worst.

However, what happens when something tangible is found that throws our firmly held beliefs of the past into question? Last week I wrote about the Antikythera Mechanism and how it’s changed our perspective on the science and technology of not only Greek culture but also our beliefs on when precision gear technology and even computing were first invented and utilized by modern man.

Bottom line: History is not always truth, and history is not infallible.

So what is history?

“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”

– Napoleon Bonaparte


That is all history is. What we study when we study history is simply an interpretation of the past that we have agreed upon. These interpretations are written by men and women, fallible as all humans are, who are each influenced by their own unique social and cultural perspectives of the world. It goes without saying that two histories of the world written by two individuals: one from Western cultural and one from Eastern cultural would be markedly different, but these differences play out in more subtle ways even within a single culture.

Note the topics that are hot in popular history right now. For example, there has been a lot of concentration on gays and lesbians in history. Have they always been there in the past? Yes. Has their role, perhaps, been exaggerated? Almost certainly. Why? It’s because this is a popular and controversial social issue of our time which has begun to shape and change our current agreed upon version of past events. No doubt in a few decades our cultural lens will shift and this process will start all over again as we once more reinterpret history through our culture’s newest viewpoint.

“History is written by the victors.”

– Winston Churchill

History is written by those who win, and then it is rewritten and re-framed by the next set of winners. Over and over and over again history changes. Sometimes it changes for the better when truth is revealed anew, but more often than not we fail to interpret history in an objective manner.  Instead, our government, our cultural, and groups with their own individual agendas (social, religious, or otherwise) skew the truth because at this present moment they are the victors.

Ancient Mysteries: The Antikythera Mechanism

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Antikythera’s harbour Potamos” by Jimmyoneill at English Wikipedia
Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
One of the most mysterious finds to ever come out of Ancient Greece was the Antikythera Mechanism. (If you’re wondering how to pronounce it, the answer is: an”ti-ki-thēr’u.) This device was found in the wreckage of an Ancient Greek sailing vessel found somewhere between 1900-1901 just off the cost of Antikythera, a small island lying between Crete and Peloponnese.

One can never fault archeologists for being too creative with their naming decisions. On the bright side, at least no one dubbed it the Ancient Greek doohickey.

Dated to somewhere between 150 to 100 BC, for decades the Antikythera Mechanism was considered to be nothing more than a particularly interesting astrolabe. Astrolabes were inventions from the Hellenistic period that were used largely for telling time and determining latitude. At the time, more than a hundred years ago, it was a logical but cautious conclusion.

However, other researches had long been convinced that the Antikythera Mechanism was far too complex to just be a simple astrolabe. The problem to convincing anyone that this was not an astrolabe was simply this: as of the early 1900’s there had never been any prior evidence found of people widely using precisely and scientifically accurate gears to create a device until the time of the fourteen century. That’s a 1400 year gap.

Of course, this isn’t the first time technology from the ancient world has gone inexplicably missing. The Romans had their own version of concrete, opus signinum Some in the modern era believe they have cracked the secret of how it was made, but the technology did exist more than 2000 years ago. How about Damascus steel? That spent ages lost and has been, debatably, rediscovered as well, and that’s just the tip of the lost technology iceberg…

The point is that we cannot assume with any reasonable certainty that we ‘know’ anything about the past for certain. We sometimes mistakenly believe our ancestors were more primitive than they actually were. Let’s give our ancestors some props here, guys. In reality, all we can do is make best guesses based on the evidence at hand. Some of those guesses are more certain than others, and at any time you may be proven wrong.

Antikythera Mechanism - Fragment A
Antikythera Mechanism – Fragment A” Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Which brings us back to the Antikythera Mechanism, and the fact that it’s not an astrolabe in the slightest. In the last ten years, this remarkable device has gone through countless rounds of new studies and tests thanks to imaging and x-ray technologies that allow researchers to literally see through the corrosion.

With these technologies, they have been able to enumerate the number of teeth on various gear wheels and read long obscured Greek text engraved on the device’s components. There is a very detailed breakdown of the device’s schematics, the math behind it, and the Greek text available on Wikipedia for the truly curious.

Knowing these kind of details proved invaluable to deciphering that the Antikythera Mechanism is not a astrolabe but an early complex gear mechanism and, arguably, the world’s first known computer. The Antikythera Mechanism’s intended purpose was as a sort of solar clock which was capable of predicting astronomical positions and eclipses.

Even more amazing in my mind is that this was probably not the only one of its kind. Why? Because it’s nearly perfect in the context of Greek knowledge regarding astronomy (which was imperfect compared to what we know now). The precision and skill it would take to craft such a device hints that this was probably not the first or last of its kind. It’s nearly certain that there were other such devices like this in antiquity that simply did not survive to the present for one reason or another.

From the perspective of computer programming, this also raises an interesting question. Who originally created the formulas and equations for the number of gears and teeth to make this device work?

Some scholars suggest that the device or at least its predecessors could have connections to Archimedes or the school of thought and astronomy he birthed during his lifetime. Archimedes certainly is a viable candidate as he has been credited in history already as one of the finest inventors of Ancient Greece.

So what do you think?  Could this device have some other use beyond what we’ve already discovered? Do you think other such devices might have existed in Greece or Rome? If so – could they have been purposed to other ends beyond simply astronomy? Could Ada Lovelace be dethroned by Archimedes? (Most importantly, why am I out of coffee?)