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)

Beneath the slate-gray surface of the North Sea, about a half-mile off England’s east coast, lies the underwater town of Dunwich. Crabs and lobsters skitter along the streets where some 3,000 people walked during the town’s heyday in the Middle Ages. Fish dart through the sea sponge-ridden ruins of its churches, now partially buried in the seabed some 30 feet down.

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Erosion—caused by the North Sea’s relentless pounding of England’s east coast—had all but consumed Dunwich (pronounced DUN-ich) by 1750. And the sea’s silty, cold waters made visibility almost nonexistent for the intrepid few who wanted to explore the medieval ruins.

Until now. Thanks to advances in acoustic technology, a group of divers and a geomorphologist are surveying the sunken town this summer using multibeam and sidescan sonars that can detect objects on the seafloor. During a survey last year, the group mapped two churches and found evidence of a third.

“This is absolutely opening the seas up,” said David Sear, the Dunwich project’s geomorphologist who teaches at the University of Southampton. And, he added, the North Sea has plenty to reveal; in addition to Dunwich, Sear would like to use the undersea technology to explore the submerged towns of Old Kilnsea and Eccles that lie farther north.

The English sunken sites join a list of others that span the globe. According to UNESCO, submerged settlements have been found in Egypt, India, Jamaica, Argentina, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and the Black Sea.

“Under the sea is probably the world’s biggest museum,” said James P. Delgado, president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology based in Texas. “There’s not a lot of work going on in this area right now, however. The issues are time, money, interest, and research. Just to do a single shipwreck can take years.... Underwater archaeology costs 10 times more to dig.”

In addition to these issues, Delgado noted a strong push toward conservation pervading the world of nautical archaeology. People aren’t jumping into the water unless a site is in danger or stands to advance research.

For Sear, surveying Dunwich answers a question people in the region have asked for years: Is anything left?

“In the 1970s when I was a child playing on the beach, the last remains of All Saints church were visible on the shoreline,” Sear said in an e-mail. “Hence why I got fired up over the place!...The sand banks grow and decline over time, so there are periods when more of the site is exposed (1970s) and when they are not (now). As the coast recesses, so the banks migrate shorewards covering more of the site. The exposed remains lie in a tidal scour channel between the inner and outer bank. This migrates shorewards too; so in another 100 years different ruins may well be exposed, assuming the coastal morphology remains the same.”

Sear expects to find ruins of religious structures and forts, since they were made of stone. Houses were made of timber or wattle and daub.

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