Yorkshire’s Atlantis: rediscovering a lost medieval city

An extraordinary quest to find England’s lost medieval city may soon be coming to an end. Could his discovery help solve some of today’s biggest challenges?

It’s not hard to see the appeal of finding a lost city. Could there be a treasure? What secrets do these almost mythical places conceal? And what was life really like in these mysterious places?

Answers could soon be found in an unassuming corner of northern England as scientists and historians believe they are one step closer to discovering Yorkshire’s ‘lost Atlantis’. The town of Ravenser Odd was swallowed up by the fierce waves of the North Sea in 1362.

His story is unlike anything else in English history. The sunken city once looked like a little Venice – a wealthy, outward-looking place. Built on trade in the lands of East Yorkshire, between what is now Hull and Grimsby, historians believe it was one of England’s main trade routes at the very mouth of the Humber Estuary.

And it was also one of the most international and cosmopolitan places in England. Home to maritime traders from Germany, Scandinavia and elsewhere. An average week might have seen Scandinavians, pirates and Italian merchants plying their trade. Does it sound too fanciful to be true?

Artwork by Gareth Sleightholme

Reader’s Digest spoke to author and historian, Phil Mathison, who has devoted many years of research to learning more about this remarkable city.

“Ravenser Odd is truly an amazing and inspiring place,” says Mathison. “Once people learn a little, they just want to know more and more. It ignites people’s imaginations like nowhere else. I think most people love a legend, a mysterious story and something which has not been solved. Well, here we have a legend on our doorstep. And the curious thing is that 99% of the people of Yorkshire haven’t even heard of it.”

Ravenser Odd was founded around 1235 as a key trading port. It quickly became a town of national importance due to fishing and merchants coming and going – historians believe it had numerous wharves, a warehouse and even a prison.

It was an outpost of the Hanseatic League, a trade alliance that was, in some ways, like an early precursor to the EU. Phil explains: “It has made it a key port for Europe. It foreshadows the importance of both the sea and Europe for this region. It made the place very outward looking. You must remember that this was a time when people did not travel far beyond their hamlet or village, but the people of Ravenser Odd traded successfully with Sweden, Denmark, Estonia and beyond. beyond almost daily. It was truly international and cosmopolitan, certainly compared to anywhere else in Yorkshire at the time.

Release point

Spurn Point is an iconic and constantly moving peninsula that winds between the North Sea and the Humber Estuary

Some of the main commodities traded in the city were fish and herring. But whale oil came from Sweden, and of course wine from France was also popular!

Although the town was only home to around 1,000 people, this still made it one of the largest places on the East Coast at that time; the river was absolutely the key to his success.

“It foreshadows the importance of both the sea and Europe for this region”

Mathison adds: “Although this watery place might seem remote by modern standards, back then the Humber was the place to be and the best way to get around. There were really few roads, and the ones that did exist were so dangerous with the threats of highwaymen. Getting around by boat made sense and helped make Ravenser the vital and important place it was.

Today, scientists believe that Ravenser Odd lies at the bottom of the sea. Changes to the Humber estuary and a type of coastal erosion led to the decline of the town and it was eventually flooded in the middle of the 14th century. A storm and flood around 1362 probably brought about its dramatic end, leaving it completely submerged in the waters of the North Sea.

I’m not aware that May’s scan found a “distinguishing stone”. In the past, an echo sounder located a ridge near the shore on the Spurn Sea side, but high beach and seabed levels over the past year appear to have obscured it.

A new search closer to shore this year found a distinctive ridge a few meters below the water’s surface, but changing seabed levels are making the search difficult. Advanced sonar equipment could be deployed in hopes of finding the lost city‘s harbor walls, but additional funds are needed to complete the search.

In Search of Atlantis from Yorkshire

Image by Dr. Steve Simmons

Scientists are convinced that the discovery of Ravenser Odd under the Humber would be as legendary as the discovery of Pompeii, after it was buried under volcanic debris, or as the discovery of Atlantis itself.

Dr Steve Simmons, a sedimentary expert from the University of Hull’s Institute for Energy and the Environment, is part of the team surveying the seabed and the Humber River for clues .

Its latest state-of-the-art surveys use an advanced echo sounder to process and interpret the data. It sends pulses of sound energy below the sounding boat in a fan-shaped beam and listens for reflections, similar to an ultrasound scanner, but on a much larger scale. These seabed reflections allow Steve and his team to map the seabed in stunning detail to within centimeters.

Dr Simmons explains how the team listened to local fishermen for advice. Fishermen had reported disturbances to the water surface which may have been caused by the foundation of the Ravenser Odd sea wall. The team is now combining this advice from people who live off the North Sea with historical accounts that might offer other clues or different insights into the elusive city.

The story of its aquatic fate is not entirely unique. But Dr Simmons says: “The fact that a city of such importance could simply disappear so suddenly and its exact location lost to history, captures the imagination. About 30 villages were lost to the sea along the coast of Holderness near Hull, but none were as important and remain as enigmatic as Ravenser Odd.

“The story of his aquatic fate is not entirely unique”

“The loss of Ravenser Odd reminds us that coastal erosion is nothing new and that people living and working along the Yorkshire coast have had to constantly live and adapt to a receding coastline which has resulted in the loss of many colonies This helps us understand that adapting to change is nothing new, but at the same time the threat of erosion is likely to be greater with sea level rise and increased frequency of storms.

Ravenser Odd was a place that grew rapidly. But according to Dr. Simmons’ research, it also had huge untapped potential. He says: “Historical accounts of piracy suggest that everyday life in the city would have been quite interesting – almost like a medieval version of the Wild West!

Finding Ravenser Odd

“It is fascinating to think how Ravenser Odd might have become a modern city and what impact that would have had on the development of rival ports to the north. Had it developed into a larger city that stretched inland land, then better transport links could have opened up what today looks like a remote part of Yorkshire.

The loss of Ravenser Odd was not a sudden thing. Mathison believes the city’s residents could see sea levels rising and the city’s shorelines eroding for at least 40 years before. “There is a lesson here,” he explains. “We have to be very careful where we build houses. Nature decides, after all. I think that’s one of the reasons why this story is so important, because it can shine a light on the threat coastal erosion faced by communities on the East Yorkshire coast today.

Today, the Holderness coast is one of the fastest eroding coasts in the world, with some areas retreating by up to ten meters a year.

“That’s one of the reasons I love local history so much. Understanding the past helps us better prepare for what might happen in the future. How many people have a legend like this on their doorstep? Mathison explains.

“Yes, it is a warning about erosion. But the people who live here know the landscape and our coastline changes all the time,” says Mathison. “What’s really interesting is how the story of Ravenser Odd has shaped the character of people here. We are people at the cutting edge of technology, and such people have always tended to innovate. He created a survivor character. The people of Hull, Grimsby and all around Humberside are making the most of what they have. Because they were fighting a battle that they ultimately lost.

“This story has shaped the character here. We are people on the edge”

Future surveys will cover other areas off the Holderness coast and around the Humber. The team’s ground-penetrating radar could find base foundations. And then, it is hoped that archaeological explorations will locate the city walls, warehouses and even houses lost under water.

It may not be Up to Pompeiibut the River Humber still has some secrets to share.

Read more: Floating life: cities prepare for sea level rise

Read more: Why visit the incredible megaliths of the Midlands?

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