Ancient Cities Lost to the Seas

Dunwich, England, is one of several underwater sites where divers are discovering new information about historic cultures

Erosion—caused by the North Sea's relentless pounding of England's east coast—had all but consumed Dunwich by 1750. (Newscom)

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Lead diver Stuart Bacon has found several objects since he began his exploration in 1971. One of the most exciting finds to date is a portion of a slab used to cover a knight’s tomb in 1320, a fine example of the prosperity Dunwich once enjoyed.

“Eight hundred houses... a dozen abodes of prayer and worship, windmills, workshops, taverns, shops, storehouses, ships,” wrote Rowland Parker in Men of Dunwich, the 1978 classic reference book about the town. “It would be difficult to think of an every-day commodity in existence in the late 13th century which was not obtainable in Dunwich market-place, either immediately or ‘when the next ship comes in from’ Copenhagen, Hamburg, Barcelona or wherever.”

The sea that brought trade to Dunwich was not entirely benevolent. The town was losing ground as early as 1086 when the Domesday Book, a survey of all holdings in England, was published; between 1066 and 1086 more than half of Dunwich’s taxable farmland had washed away. Major storms in 1287, 1328, 1347, and 1740 swallowed up more land. By 1844, only 237 people lived in Dunwich.

Today, less than half as many reside there in a handful of ruins on dry land. These include portions of the Greyfriars monastery and a corner of All Saints’ cemetery. Beachcombers have occasionally seen bones protruding from the cliffs, left over from burial grounds that are crumbling into the sea. And local fishermen over the years have said they heard bells tolling in the church towers from beneath the waves.

Ghostly sounds or not, the rediscovery of Dunwich continues. Sear wants to create a 3-D map of the church sites found so far. The group wants to expand the survey to cover other churches and structures.

“We’ve got to be in for some surprises,” he added.

Around the world, other sunken settlements have been explored or are the subject of current work:

* Kekova, Turkey: The partially submerged ruins of the ancient city of Simena are easy to see through the clear turquoise waters off Turkey’s southern coast. A massive earthquake buried much of Simena in the 2nd century AD. Tourists can swim near the ruins or see them from glass-bottomed tour boats.

* Port Royal, Jamaica: On June 7, 1692, an earthquake wiped out this Caribbean port, once known as “the wickedest city on Earth.” Two thousand people were killed instantly, and many others perished later. Nautical archaeologists have found eight buildings so far.

* Alexandria, Egypt: Divers have found remnants of Alexandria’s famous lighthouse in the bay, as well as Cleopatra’s palace. UNESCO is looking into whether the world’s first underwater museum could be built here.

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