chapter  1
17 Pages

The seas discovered

The vision of the world’s oceans as boundless, timeless, eternal and unaffected by historical change has continued to fascinate poets from the beginnings of the Romantic era to the present. Heinrich Heine hailed the ‘eternal sea’ from the shores of the North Sea in the 1820s; Gottfried Benn heard the eternal call of the sea from the shore in 1913, while the French poet Tristan Corbière wished that drowned sailors might roll eternally in the virgin spaces of the ocean.1 The seas which are the subject of this book, however, are far from eternal in terms of earth history. The present-day outlines of northern European seas are essentially the result of the melting of the ice which began in earnest some 13,000 years ago, as the final period of glaciation, known as the Weichselian, came to an end. As the Baltic and North Seas were beginning to take the form by which we recognise them today, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were already active on their shores. The Danish archaeologist J. Jensen offers us a vision of a winter’s day at the end of the Ice Age, when human beings might first have gazed at the landscape of his homeland: ‘a bare

arctic land, sharp in its contours, cold and windy and with only a meagre tundra vegetation – just enough for the herds of reindeer to find food here part of the year.’2 Present-day Denmark was united with Sweden by a land bridge, behind which lay a massive ice lake, the ancestor of the present Baltic, bounded to the north by the edges of the retreating icecap. What was to become the British Isles was similarly linked to the continental land-mass, a terrain known as Northsealand, whose northern limits ran from Flamborough Head to the Jutland peninsula. Across this plain, now submerged beneath forty to fifty fathoms of water, Stone Age hunters roamed in search of prey; the tools and weapons they used are still occasionally dredged up from the banks. From their earliest times, therefore, these relatively shallow seas which define the northern margins of the European continent have influenced and in turn been affected by human settlement.