Secrets of lost city

PUBLISHED: 13:32 06 June 2008 | UPDATED: 20:35 05 July 2010

The secrets of a Suffolk coastal community that disappeared beneath the waves could soon be discovered, with the help of state-of-the-art surveillance equipment.

The secrets of a Suffolk coastal community that disappeared beneath the waves could soon be discovered, with the help of state-of-the-art surveillance equipment.

Dunwich was once a thriving city and port to rival London in the 12th and 13th century, but the medieval metropolis was at the mercy of the waves and major structures, including churches, chapels and monasteries were swallowed by the North Sea.

Since then it has become the stuff of legend, with reports of phantom bells ringing, but now experts hope to locate and identify the ancient structures with the aid of the latest seabed mapping equipment, and have already had some interesting findings.

Marine archaeologist Stuart Bacon, director of Suffolk Underwater Studies, has been diving at the site for nearly 40 years, but this is the first time such modern equipment has been used to yield the secrets of the lost city.

Due to the high levels of silt in the water, there is visibility of only a few centimetres under water and sonar equipment will be used to scan the seabed.

The Dunwich of today is a coastal village of shingle beaches but the former city lies between 10ft and 15ft down under water.

“We're currently surveying the seabed with the latest equipment that hasn't been used here before. We've got a full plan showing the site and we are operating from the boat following co-ordinates. We are on the water about a kilometre off the coast,” said Mr Bacon.

“We are surveying for the ruins of ruins - most were ruins on the cliffs before they were on the seabed. The equipment can detect material through the sediment.”

Mr Bacon is joined by a team from the University of Southampton, led by Prof David Sear. It is hoped that the two-day survey, which finishes today, will build up a better picture of the lost city.

Mr Bacon and the team have to interpret the data that is sent from the acoustic imaging technology.

“The equipment is very complicated and hopefully we will discover something significant. We have had something very interesting already; we don't know what it is at this stage but it could be one of the churches,” he added.

The prosperous city, once the capital of East Anglia, traded in wool, grain, fish and furs and was even granted two seats in parliament. Five religious orders, including the Benedictines, Dominicans and Franciscans were at the city and records show at least 21 churches, chapels and hospitals.

It had a prominent mention in the Domesday Book and in 1173 Robert, Earl of Leicester tried to land 3,000 Flemish troops at the port in an attempt to overthrow Henry II. The loyal men of Dunwich forced the invaders away.

The city began its gradual demise in 1286 when a storm hit the East Anglian coast and 50 years later hundreds of houses and buildings were lost to the sea.

In 1328 another storm ravaged Dunwich and the harbour was destroyed. The onslaught continued and nearly 20 years later the sea claimed another 400 houses.

The erosion of the cliffs, made of sand and gravel and susceptible to soil creep, was so bad that by 1585 half of Dunwich was consigned to the bottom of the sea. Hundreds of years later, Dunwich is estimated to have lost a mile of land.

The seabed survey has cost £25,000 and was funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and English Heritage. It has been two years in the making and maps and images from the survey will be exhibited at Dunwich Museum.

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