Magnetic fields reveal lost undersea worlds

Civilizations lost underwater due to rising sea levels are being uncovered with the use of magnetic fields.
Tejasri Gururaj
Artists image of ancient ruins under the water.
Could magnetic fields help find the remains of civilizations lost under the sea?


  • Magnetometry is being used to uncover new information about the lost region of Doggerland.
  • This area was submerged in the mesolithic period but was once home to early human habitation.
  • What the researchers learn could reveal valuable insights into this period.

From the legendary tales of Plato's fictional Atlantis to the underwater city of Pavlopetri, in Greece, the allure of submerged civilizations has long captivated historians, archaeologists, and explorers.

Here, we take a look at a new method for discovering underwater ruins and how this is being used to study one of the largest prehistoric settlements in Europe, which now lies under the North Sea—Doggerland.

By detecting magnetic anomalies and deciphering their meanings, researchers have gained a unique perspective into the lives of those who inhabited this lost world.

Magnetic fields reveal lost undersea worlds
A map of Atlantis by Athanasius Kircher, published in Mundus Subterraneus in 1669.

Uncovering lost worlds

The enduring interest in sunken underwater worlds is perhaps best exemplified by the lost city of Atlantis—a city Plato believed to be buried in the Atlantic Ocean, but which today is widely believed to be an invention. 

However, over the years, advances in science and technology have revealed actual lost civilizations. Here are just a few whose mysteries have been uncovered thanks to modern technologies.

Pavlopetri, Greece

The ancient city of Pavlopetri is nearly 5,000 years old, making it the world's oldest known underwater city. Located off the southern coast of Laconia in Greece, its uniqueness lies in its completeness, which include buildings, streets, and tombs. 

Discovered by Nicholas Flemming in 1967, and later mapped by Cambridge archaeologists, Pavlopetri is nestled between the islet of Pavlopetri and the Pounta coast

Techniques like sonar mapping, underwater robotics, and stereo-photogrammetry have been employed to study the well-preserved ruins and understand how they became submerged due to rising sea levels and earthquakes. 

Mahabalipuram, India

The historic city of Mahabalipuram has stood for centuries as a testament to India's rich cultural heritage. Situated along the Bay of Bengal in Eastern India, this UNESCO World Heritage site is renowned for its stunning rock-cut temples and intricate sculptures.

However, the area off shore is also home to submerged temples which were the long the stuff of legends, explorer accounts, and local anecdotes.

Following the devastating 2004 tsunami, extensive investigations were conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Indian Navy using sonar technology and underwater expeditions. They found a wealth of submerged walls, temples, and artefacts which have shed new light on the areas' complex history and are still being explored today.

Magnetic fields reveal lost undersea worlds
The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram in 1914.

Heracleion, Egypt

Heracleion was an ancient Egyptian port city, dating from around the 12th century BC, located near the Canopic branch of the Nile delta. Today, it lies submerged in Abu Qir Bay, 7 km off the coast.

The city featured canals and temples, including a large temple of Amun-Gereb. Natural disasters likely caused its submergence in around the 8th century AD.

Discovered underwater in 2000 by French archaeologist Franck Goddio, the location of Heracleion was revealed through historical texts and technology including sonar and bathymetry. 

Excavations have since revealed statues, ships, and structures dating from the 6th to 4th centuries BC. Ongoing studies offer insights into this submerged city's history and culture.

A submerged prehistoric landscape

It is clear that there is much to be learned about ancient civilizations from excavating sunken cities. But what about prehistoric societies like those in Doggerland?

Magnetic fields reveal lost undersea worlds
Doggerland once connected Great Britain and continental Europe.

An ancient landmass once connecting continental to Britain, Doggerland now lies submerged beneath the waters of the North Sea. It stretches from the east coast of Great Britain to the present-day Netherlands, western Germany, and the Danish peninsula of Jutland. 

Based on archaeological research and scientific studies, Doggerland was a resource-rich and ecologically dynamic region during the later Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods (c. 20,000–4,000 BC). It served as a vibrant habitat for human habitation, offering fertile landscapes supporting various life forms.

Around 8,200 years ago, Doggerland was gradually submerged due to rising sea levels, resulting in its disappearance beneath the North Sea. This was a consequence of the receding ice sheets and changing climatic conditions at the end of the last glacial period. The area was eventually cut off from the European mainland, marking the end of an era that had witnessed the presence of early human communities.

Today, the submerged Doggerland remains a subject of significant scientific interest. Archaeologists and researchers are utilizing cutting-edge technologies, including magnetometry data analysis, to unravel the mysteries of this lost landscape. Magnetic field analysis has become a crucial tool in understanding the topography and potential archaeological features.

Magnetic fields reveal lost undersea worlds
Ph.D. student Ben Urmston leads the exploration of Doggerland using magnetometry.

Scientists at the University of Bradford are spearheading the exploration of Doggerland, led by Ph.D. student Ben Urmston. They are also collaborating with developers, such as North Sea wind farms, to gather magnetic data and identify anomalies that could indicate archaeological sites, ancient settlements, or other significant features. 

Speaking of the exciting possibilities that could be discovered, Urmston said in a press release, "As the area we are studying used to be above sea level, there's a small chance this analysis could even reveal evidence for hunter-gatherer activity. That would be the pinnacle."

"We might also discover the presence of middens, which are rubbish dumps that consist of animal bone, mollusk shells, and other biological material, that can tell us a lot about how people lived.”

Gaffney's Vision 

Professor Vince Gaffney, the academic lead on this research, has been working to uncover the mysteries of Doggerlad since 2003, when he turned his attention to landscapes that were submerged by the North Sea due to rising sea levels after the last Ice Age

Magnetic fields reveal lost undersea worlds
Professor Vincent Gaffney has been exploring Doggerland since 2003.

What began as a collaborative Ph.D. project has evolved into work that has shed new light on the early Holocene landscapes associated with the southern North Sea and the Dogger Banks.

In partnership with Ken Thomson and student Simon Fitch, Gaffney initiated a research project that utilized seismic data collected by the energy sector. The aim was to trace the outlines of the ancient landscapes that had been lost to the sea. 

This innovative approach, supported by oilfield service company Petroleum Geo-Services, yielded significant insights into the buried landscapes associated with Doggerland.

The project's impact also extended beyond the North Sea, encompassing regions such as the Severn Estuary and Liverpool Bay.

Magnetic fields: Why and how

When you hear of magnetic fields, you probably imagine a magnet and lines surrounding it. In simple terms, magnetic fields are the area surrounding any magnetic object where the magnetic force from this object can be felt. 

The source of magnetic fields can include geological features which can create variations in the Earth's magnetic field. 

Magnetic fields are helpful in the context of archaeology and underwater exploration because they offer a non-invasive means of detecting and mapping hidden or submerged features, such as buried structures, artifacts, and geological formations, without the need for extensive excavation or physical disturbance. 

For the study, researchers are collecting magnetic data using magnetometers. These devices, resembling torpedoes, are dragged through the water by cables attached to survey vessels.

Companies involved in activities like oil extraction, gas exploration, and offshore wind farms often use magnetometers to understand the underwater terrain before construction.

The technique, known as magnetometry, uses variations in the Earth's geomagnetic field to uncover potential sites of interest. By measuring the effects buried materials have on the geomagnetic field, magnetometers allow archeologists to “see” into the ground without having to excavate.

"Small changes in the magnetic field can indicate changes in the landscape, such as peat-forming areas and sediments, or where erosion has occurred, for example, in river channels," explains Urmston.

The changes can even indicate potential archaeological features such as ancient settlements or other artifacts. Analysis of these variations is used to create maps highlighting anomalies or areas of interest corresponding to significant hidden features or civilizations.

What will they find?

There is an urgency to the study of Doggerland, stemming from a race against time due to ongoing developments, particularly the expansion of wind farms in the North Sea.

But what will they find?

It is possible to speculate on possible findings based on the history of Doggerland. This area was inhabited during the Mesolithic period, suggesting that remnants of human activity from this era might be found. Possible findings could include tools, artifacts, and evidence of settlements, providing insights into the lives of ancient inhabitants.

Magnetic fields reveal lost undersea worlds
Mesolithic sites like this, which is located in the central Balkan peninsula, may have once also existed in Doggerland.

Moreover, the potential presence of submerged landforms and structures could yield valuable information about how this landscape changed over time due to natural processes and human interactions. The study could shed light on the impact of rising sea levels, climate changes, and tsunamis in shaping the region's history.

While researchers may discover evidence of settlements, structures, and artifacts that were once part of ancient communities in Doggerland, it's important to note that the nature of the discoveries could vary.

Doggerland was primarily a landmass that connected different regions, and it likely included various types of habitats, including wetlands, coastal areas, and possibly some rudimentary human habitations.

While researchers may find traces of human life, like dwellings, tools, and artifacts in Doggerland, it is uncertain if these imply fully well-established cities.

What lies ahead?

Doggerland's exploration demonstrated the usefulness of magnetometry for exploring submerged civilizations.

As Gaffney noted in the press release, "Exploring the submerged landscapes beneath the North Sea represents one of the last great challenges to archaeology. Achieving this is becoming even more urgent with the rapid development of the North Sea for renewable energy."

In a world grappling with environmental challenges and the imperative to preserve cultural heritage, innovative approaches are needed. By minimizing physical disruption and excavation, it is possible to safeguard delicate underwater ecosystems while unraveling the narratives they hold.

There is a lot we don't know about our own past, but progress in science and technology is beginning to change that.

And who knows? We may one day even find the fabled city of Atlantis, hidden beneath the waves.

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