For centuries we have delighted in the mythical possibility that the lost city of Atlantis remains undisturbed and exportable under the sea. Adventurers, explorers and even scientific investigators have dived into the mystery with the hopes of seeing the sunken city first hand. Atlantis remains elusive—its existence questionable—but the concept of the submerged settlement is not exclusive to the realms of legend.
In the United Kingdom thousands of communities have been lost in the past millennium. Their downfalls are mostly traceable to population shifts associated with rural flight and the decline of industry, but in a few unique cases entire cities and villages have been lost to water. Whether deliberately flooded or swallowed by the sea, the United Kingdom has more real underwater settlements than you might expect.
© Dunwich Museum Fisk Collection
In the 12th century Dunwich, which lies on the Suffolk Coast of South East England, may have been as important as London to the nation’s commercial development. The affluent port city was the sixth largest in England, the capital of a Saxon kingdom and records from the period show that it had 19 places of worship and two hospitals. The city’s strategic location on the coast allowed it to thrive as a harbour serving shipping traffic from all around the world, attracting wealthy merchants who made it their base of trade. Much of Dunwich’s prosperity was owed to its blooming fishing industry and its fleet travelled as far as Iceland for fish to sell domestically and internationally.
Dunwich continued to grow well into the 13th century. The local shipbuilding industry was instrumental in helping King John enforce his recently-passed Magna Carta, kitting out military ships to fight the French who were complicit with the intransigent Barons opposing the new charter. By the middle of the century the port boasted 80 ships and was frequently called on to assist in military endeavours. Although there are no population records for the city at its zenith, Dunwich had all the hallmarks of a bustling medieval settlement—a plethora of places of worship, voluminous international trade and even parliamentary seats.
Despite the buoyancy of its markets, Dunwich’s existence was marked by a constant battle with nature. Throughout the 13th century officials frequently had to dig into the city fund to repair the storm-battered port. Its position on the fringes of the Suffolk coast meant that Dunwich was susceptible to flooding caused by freak weather and coastal erosion of the cliffs it rested on compounded the looming existential threat.
By 1268 local authorities had run out of money and failed to pay their debts and the city was seized by the King. The confrontation with the sea continued into the 14th century and in 1347 a storm destroyed more than a quarter of the city. This plunged Dunwich into permanent decline and was the first of many severe storms which ate into the city. By 1602 the combination of brutal storms and coastal erosion left Dunwich only a quarter of its original size and in 1755 the only remaining church had to be abandoned. By 2016, at least 2,000m of the old city had been lost. With churches, houses, farms and roads swallowed by the sea Dunwich is now a small hamlet with less than 200 inhabitants.
Map showing Medieval Dunwich. © Southampton University
For centuries the ancient city was the subject of local folklore which purported that the entire settlement lay dormant underwater—its infrastructure and architecture pristine, crying out for adventurers to map. One of the most persistent tales was that the bells of one of Dunwich’s submerged churches could be heard ringing from underwater during certain tidal conditions.
By the 1970s analysis of historical records by local historians had largely disproven the myth of the ringing bells, but hopes that vestiges of the old city remained underwater lived on. Dunwich held considerable allure for marine archaeologists and hands-on local researchers alike and it would eventually be local enthusiasts who catalysed progress in locating the remains of the city. Although excavations had taken place in 1935 by Ipswich Museum and in 1970 by The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History, their investigations were confined to land. Members of the North East Essex British Sub Aqua Club were the first to take the quest underwater when they began a series of dives off the coast of Suffolk in 1970. Conditions could be treacherous and they faced a constant fight against poor visibility. The team were selective in their dives, taking advantage of the weather whenever possible.
Despite faltering initially, after a few attempts the divers located some masonry remnants of All Saints Church and more discoveries soon followed. Along with the church remains they found sections of wall up to 15 feet long and pieces of a bridge. The divers became more sophisticated in their search throughout the 1970s and by the end of the decade had started mapping the remains they had found, which included at least two churches standing tall along with several other buildings. Grids were used to calculate the dimensions of the remains as the team began to document their research meticulously. Their findings were published by Jean and Stuart Bacon in 1979 in a book titled The Search for Dunwich City Under the Sea. The husband and wife team had previously written Ancient Dunwich: Suffolk’s Lost City, the first comprehensive history of the town since Thomas Gardner’s 1754 account.
Progress remained steady but tidal conditions and visibility on the ocean floor oscillated between low and zero, severely limiting their surveying efforts. It would not be until 2008 when Stuart Bacon teamed up with Professor David Sear at Southampton University to find the lost city that the full extent of Dunwich’s remains was revealed. The project team drew on a range of historical maps to roughly determine the position of each part of Dunwich. They then used sonar technology to create a 3D map showing what had been invisible to previous divers. Sonar works by bouncing acoustic signals off targets and measuring the sound which bounces back.
3D visualisation of the remains of Dunwich created using sonar technology. © Southampton University
By the time the project concluded in 2013 it had found six new ruins on the seabed and 74 sites of potential archaeological interest. The researchers were able to confirm the precise boundaries of the city limits and the probable ruins of the old Town Hall and five places of worship. Wooden structures were found at the Northern end of the boundaries, suggesting that this was the location of the commercially vibrant port.
Professor Sear, summarising the project’s findings, noted that Dunwich “is a sobering example of the relentless force of nature on our island coastline. It starkly demonstrates how rapidly the coast can change, even when protected by its inhabitants”.
S.E. West, The excavation of Dunwich Town Defences, 1970
Archive of Dunwich Museum
David Sear, ‘Touching the Tide Project Report: Dunwich Marine Archaeology Survey’
University of Southampton Press Release, ‘Secret streets of Britain’s Atlantis are revealed’
Jean & Stuart Bacon, The Search for Dunwich City Under The Sea