1. Introduction

'From the sixth century onward, discourses that claimed to rely on empirical observation were engaged in a lively competition with discourse self-consciously based on traditional narratives.' (Hopman 2013, 176)

In the earliest recesses of classical antiquity, scholars grappled with the notion that archaic cosmological narratives contained in the epic poems of Homer's Iliad (c. 760-710 BCE, cf. Fagles 1990) and Hesiod's Theogeny (c. 700 BCE, cf. Caldwell 1987) may allude to actual geological events and natural features from times then past and present. From the paradoxographer Palaephatus to the philosophy of Plato (Gregory 2008), Strabo's Geography and on to Pliny the Elder's Natural History, these pioneering explorations bore an inherently interdisciplinary perspective. Since then scholars from a plethora of modern schools have followed in their wake (Hooke 1679; Tyler 1865; Frazer 1918) and within the last forty years the diluvial side of this research has expanded to range from studying possible origins for Plato's Atlantis (Vitaliano 1968; 1973; 1997), to explanations for the creation of oceanic islands (Nunn 2012; 2014a). Such stories are familiar throughout the world, with those of Noah, Gilgamesh and Atlantis being perhaps the most internationally famous.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Map of study area showing three designated zones (1-3) and study area of Cardigan Bay (red dotted box)

On the European seaboard (Figure 1), from Brittany through southern England, Wales, Ireland and parts of Scotland, a series of lesser known stories of a similar ilk exist (Figure 2). The inspiration behind these has been much debated but what is now geologically clear is that in many cases the seabed associated with the space these stories purport to describe was dry land until recently and that human beings once occupied ground now submerged beneath the sea (Flemming et al. 2014).

Figure 2
Figure 2: Submerged Stories. Illustration by Erin Kavanagh

Our knowledge of the changes imposed on these once dry lands has been gleaned from careful study of seabed cores and other forms of data and we can now appreciate the impact of major environmental events during the last 20,000 years on these landscapes and the people who once lived in them. For example, the rapid climatic amelioration at the end of the last cold period, sea level rise following ice sheet melting and vegetation change resulting from both human and natural events (Lowe and Walker 2015) are likely to have been significant in the lives of peoples living through these periods of change. Consequently, they may have been spoken of immediately after the event and perhaps immortalised in story form. One common strand among the earth sciences (including archaeology) has been to study the impact of post-glacial flooding on early Holocene human populations and this has been debated in many contexts; for example Turney and Brown (2007) speculate on the impact of catastrophic early Holocene sea level rise and the Neolithic transition in Europe while Leary (2015) has examined the impact of flooding in the North Sea Basin. Such an event has allowed workers in the Black Sea (Ryan et al. 1997; Ryan and Pitman 1998) to argue that the post-glacial drowning of the Black Sea was responsible for the foundation of many of the regional traditions. Elsewhere, Lambeck (1995; 1996) has explored the 'flood myth' in the Persian Gulf while Nunn (2012; 2014a; 2014b; 2016) has extensively studied geo-hazards and 'geo-myths' in the Asia-Pacific region. In the British Isles workers such as Ashton (1920) and Cracknell (2005) have examined local narratives and contextualised them within the framework of the known, or speculated, geological history of the region. More recent examples of attempts to link historiography with geological causes have been made in the Severn estuary, where Bryant and Haslett (2002; 2007) have examined the documentary and geological evidence for the causes of the 1607 flood event.

Predominantly, papers purporting to link geological events and stories have been undertaken from the perspective of the scientist, with little regard for the perspective of the story or from that of the story-teller. In this article we attempt to redress this inferred normativity by drawing attention to the problematic nature of such an endeavour, developing a discussion about how else one might approach this balance from that opened by fields as diverse as folklore (Dundes 1988; Dégh 1995), ethnography (Deloria 1995) and archaeo-astronomy (Hamacher and Norris 2009; Hamacher 2014). In so doing we provide a summary of some of the new geological data from our shallow seas that document submergence and flooding in parallel with selected versions of the local tales told. We do this by reference in particular to Cardigan Bay, wherein resides one version of the Celtic Atlantis; Cantre'r Gwaelod. Finally, we attempt to draw some conclusions.


Cite this as: Kavanagh, K.E. and Bates, M.R. 2019 Semantics of the Sea — Stories and Science along the Celtic Seaboard, Internet Archaeology 53.

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