The focus of this article has been to place known and emerging geological evidence for the timing and nature of flooding along the shallow coastal shelf areas around Great Britain and Ireland alongside a consideration of a summary of localised flood-related folk tales. The relationship between these two disparate sources of landscape information does, however, remain opaque. In part, this reflects the fundamental way in which the narratives of science and story-telling are developed and understood, both within and between these fields. At the core of this disparity lays their temporal and spatial perspectives, their manners of transmission and what each type of teller considers to be a priority, for essentially science describes the evidence and stories describe the experience. Taking an orthodox etiological approach we can nonetheless postulate that there are links between what is known geologically and the stories cited, synthesising them into the following key factors:
Consequently, a series of geo-archaeological hypotheses can be developed based on the premise that major events (catastrophic in most cases) known about today (flooding, volcanic activity, changing local topographies) may have been perceived by people in the past as a disaster under certain sets of circumstances, or as an observable event worthy of note, inspiration or incidental inclusion in narrative form. Therefore, the many instances of inundation in our Area 3 'medley' may be paralleled in the geological record by the flooding events throughout the Holocene that have been described around much of the British coastline (with the notable exception of Scotland and Anglia). Alternatively, they could be purely allegorical, or ecclesiastical propaganda or even localised adaptations of Genesis 7, the latter being particularly caution-inducing owing to the submerged forest in Cardigan Bay being known colloquially as 'Noah's trees'.
In addition to these catastrophic flooding events we find a different type of sea change in Bendigeidfran's crossing in the Mabinogi. The described passage from Wales to Ireland could be an allusion to a shallower than present partial crossing, something peculiarly paralleled by Wingfield's model for forebulge retreat northwards through the Irish sea during the late glacial/early Holocene (Wingfield 1995). Alternatively, it could be a creative response to the presence of Sarn Badrig, in that unlike normal men a (political/physical) giant would surely have been able to (metaphorically/literally) walk upon such a causeway and thus wade through the waves. In the same vein, tales such as that of the Goodwin Sands and The Movable Island could be linked to shifting sandbanks well documented in the geological record.
It is also imperative to consider the alleged timing of the documented flooding events. These range from the final Upper Palaeolithic through to the 'recent' past for the recovery of global sea levels following deglaciation. These gradual inundation events (sea level rise) probably ceased by the Bronze Age; by contrast sudden flooding (tsunami/storm surge) events have occurred intermittently through the Holocene (e.g. Storegga Slide Tsunami or the Lisbon Tsunami) and continued on an intermittent basis ever since. Consequently, if any of these stories can be tracked backwards to an inception event then a wide range of ages should be expected for its occurrence, possibly including all of them as being simultaneously represented. This would fit with Doležel's triadic pattern — flooding event X inspires story X1 (Doležel 1999). Centuries afterwards flooding event Y occurs, reinforcing and adapting story X1 into story Y1, and so on and so forth. This leads us to postulate that what we may have in our present story collection may indeed be the reverberations of stories past, amended and appended as much by the repeating presence of similar geological occurrences in the experience of the narrators as by the process of narrating in and of itself.
Finally, then, let us return to Borth and the human footprints it has retained from four thousand years ago, where we find evidence for sheep/goat, cattle and pig preserved on the same sediments as our child's prints, sealed beneath a thin layer of silt that represents inundation of the forest. Those small, bare, feet would have stood among decaying, drowning, trees and creeping water where once there had been dry land. Perhaps he or she had known that land, the living oak and pine, a thriving habitat stolen suddenly by catastrophic waves. Perhaps the cluster of larger human footprints nearby mark the gathering of their family, a people surveying sudden devastation, or perhaps there was a graduation of loss relayed through generations. Geologically we can posit a time frame of ten to fifty years for this submergence, thus either way we can assert that our child could have borne witness to the transformation, inheriting a landscape made frail in its liminality. Which leaves us wondering, what would he or she have made of this experience? What questions may have been asked that we also ask today, while we too stand among the rotting land and sound of encroaching sea, facing westwards into the flood.
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. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.53.8
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