Some of the world's best preserved prehistoric landscapes survive in pristine condition at the bottom of the North Sea, archaeologists claimed yesterday.
Academic interest in what are being described as drowned Stone Age hunting grounds is likely to increase dramatically after the discovery of 28 Neanderthal flint axes on the sea bed off the East Anglian coast.
Dating from at least 50,000-60,000 years ago, they were found with other flint artefacts, a large number of mammoth bones, teeth and tusk fragments, and pieces of deer antler. The sea bed location was probably a Neanderthal hunters' kill site or temporary camp site.
The axes – one of the largest groups ever found – were spotted by a keen-eyed amateur archaeologist when a consignment of North Sea gravel arrived at the Dutch port of Flushing.
The cache was found 8 miles off Great Yarmouth and is the most northerly point in the North Sea that Neanderthal tools have been discovered. It had been feared that the ice sheets that destroyed most pre-ice age Brit-ish landscapes had done the same to the land surfaces which existed where the North Sea is now.
But archaeologists now suspect that some Neanderthal landscapes have survived under the North Sea. What's more, they are now certain that hundreds or even thousands of square miles of post-ice age prehistoric landscapes do survive there. On land they have largely been destroyed or degraded by centuries of agriculture, later human settlement and natural erosion.
The North Sea is of immense value to archaeologists and is the largest area of drowned landscape in Europe. "It's vital that parts of it should be considered as a potential World Heritage site," said Professor Vince Gaffney of the University of Birmingham, a leading authority on North Sea archaeology.
Professor Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum, said: "The quality and quantity of material from the North Sea shows what a rich resource it is for helping to reconstruct missing phases of our prehistory. The evidence should be preserved and studied. World heritage status would help in that process."
In the southern North Sea, Dutch prehistorians working alongside North Sea fishermen over the past decade have identified about 100 Neanderthal flint axes, 200 later Stone Age bone, antler and flint artefacts made by anatomically modern humans, and the remains of thousands of mammoths, woolly rhinos and other ice-age mammals.
Detailed archaeological research at the bottom of the North Sea would be likely to solve a host of Stone Age mysteries. It should help establish when Britain was recolonised by humans after a 100,000-year uninhabited period. It may also reveal for the first time the full technological capabilities of Neanderthal Man, because preservation on and in the sea bed is extremely good. Wooden, stone and bone implements have almost certainly survived.
Later this week, British and Dutch archaeologists will meet in Holland to formulate a joint program of North Sea research. German, Belgian, Danish and Norwegian archaeologists and oceanographers are likely to be included in a plan to map and investigate the North Sea's prehistoric landscapes in detail.
The discovery of the 28 Neanderthal axes was initially reported to the Dutch government archaeological agency, who passed the information via English Heritage to the gravel extraction firm Hanson Aggregates.
"This is the single most important archaeological find from the North Sea. We have stopped dredging that area and have created an exclusion zone to protect the site," said a senior Hanson geologist Robert Langman.