THE story of a city that fell into the sea was one that David Sear learned from a very early age on his summer holidays to the East Anglian coast.

Decades later, David, now a professor in physical geography at the University of Southampton, has helped carry out the most detailed analysis of the archaeological remains of the lost medieval town of Dunwich, off the Suffolk coast.

The find has been labelled by the professor as the one of the most important milestones in marine archaeology.

Dunwich was once a thriving city – the tenth largest settlement in England. Packed with churches, monasteries, hospitals and grand public buildings, it was the same size as 14th century London and even had two seats in Parliament as testament to its importance.

But a vicious storm in 1286 swept much of the city into the sea and silted up the Dunwich River.

More storms followed that squeezed the economic life out of the town.

Now the town lies in a watery grave, three to ten metres below the surface of the sea, just off the present coastline, leading to it being dubbed Britain’s very own Atlantis.

But thanks to the work of Professor Sear and the university’s GeoData institute and the National Oceanography Centre, based in Southampton, it has been revealed what the town might have looked like.

The project started four years ago and by using advanced underwater imaging techniques it has produced the most accurate map to date of the town’s streets, boundaries and major buildings.

The findings could open the floodgates and help uncover sites of archaeological importance in the Solent too.

Speaking to the Daily Echo, Professor Sear said: “Southampton is a perfect place to find evidence of former ships and former settlements by using this technology.

The technology is used best when in rivers or estuaries where the waters are murky.”

He added: “The technology can help unmask ports that have been lost to the sea and these will produce archaeology of the future.”

One such potential place in the Solent where this technology could be used is just off Bouldnor, on the Isle of Wight, where divers have been regularly bringing back preserved remnants of a lost civilisation.

A human settlement existed here about 8,000 years ago, when lower sea levels meant that the Solent was just a river valley.

The work done so far has already shown the technology of Mesolithic settlers was probably 2,000 years ahead of what had previously been believed. However, Professor Sear is currently concentrating on uncovering more about Dunwich.

In a year’s time there could be a computer-generated image of what the town might have looked like.

He also pointed out that in the North Sea there are 250 possible sites where settlements have been lost to coastal erosion and have yet to be rediscovered.

The professor is delighted to be part of the project. He said: “I was told the story in my youth, and to be able to find this medieval city that was lost to the sea is great.”


VILLAGES and towns across Britain have been lost to the sea, either through storms or coastal erosion.

Dunwich is perhaps the largest, but other places tell a similar tale of how the sea has forced dramatic change on Britain’s shores.

Ravenser Odd, founded in 1235, was a thriving seaport on the East Yorkshire coast. In the 14th century it regularly supplied Henry VI with warships and men for his war with the Scots.

But by 1346, two-thirds of the town was lost to coastal erosion.

Norfolk, on the east coast, can claim the most lost towns. Coastal erosion claimed Shipden which was washed away in the 14th century, and Eccles-on-Sea was all but destroyed by a storm in 1604.

Despite being an attractive traditional seaside town, Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex has a history of erosion. It was once a farming village situated inland – but due to coastal erosion large quantities of land were lost to the sea, including huge parts of the medieval settlement.