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Yorkshire's 'Atlantis' may finally be revealed

Spurn Point, where the Humber estuary meets the North Sea
Spurn Point is where the Humber estuary meets the North Sea. (Image credit: Mr. Nut / Alamy Stock Photo)

Archaeologists are closer than ever to locating a lost medieval town sometimes referred to as Yorkshire's "Atlantis," beneath the waves. 

Also called Ravenser Odd, the town flourished in what is now east Yorkshire along the east coast of England during the Middle Ages before it was lost to the sea.

"It was a major settlement of some 400+ households," Daniel Parsons, a professor of sedimentology at the University of Hull in Yorkshire, told Live Science in an email. Historical records say that the site had a sea wall, harbor, prison and marketplace, Parsons said. 

A search for Ravenser Odd in November 2021 in part of the Humber River estuary turned up empty; but now the team believes that it is getting closer than ever now that they have narrowed down the remaining area where it could be located. They plan to set out in about two weeks to the estuary for another search. "[We're] very confident we will find some evidence of the settlement," Parsons told Live Science. 

Founded around 1235, the town was built on a sandbar on the north bank of the Humber River, along a busy trade route. Parts of the coastline began to erode away during the 14th century, leading to destruction of seaside buildings as well as more flooding across the town. "It actually declined slowly over time — from [1300] onwards — largely because of coastal change resulting in frequent flooding," Parsons told Live Science. What remained of the town was completely abandoned after a major storm hit the area in 1362. 

Related: Sunken cities: Discover real-life 'Atlantis' settlements hidden beneath the waves

While the November 2021 search didn't succeed in finding the town, scientists believe they are getting close. This image shows an underwater mapping scan from November 2021.

While the November 2021 search didn't succeed in finding the town, scientists believe they are getting close. This image shows an underwater mapping scan from November 2021. (Image credit: Image courtesy Steve Simmons)

A record in the publication "Chronicle of Meaux" (Meaux is an abbey in the area) described how "the town was swiftly swallowed up and irreparably destroyed by the merciless floods and tempests." The chronicle also noted that Ravenser Odd "was an exceedingly famous borough devoted to merchandise and very much occupied with fishing…"

Scholars react

What are the chances that archaeologists will really uncover Yorkshire's "Atlantis?" A number of scholars who spoke to Live Science were generally optimistic that the team may succeed in discovering the site. 

"We do know approximately where it was located, and even though the organic remains may not survive, there should still be a substantial archaeological footprint," as long as it isn't buried too deeply by sediments, Roberta Magnusson, an associate professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, wrote in an email. 

"I think that the chances of finding archaeological remains are high," said Robert Duck, an emeritus professor of geography at the University of Dundee in Scotland. 

The area where Ravenser Odd once thrived has been occupied since at least the Bronze Age, meaning that even if the remains of a town are found, archaeologists will need to distinguish Ravenser Odd remains from those of an earlier site, said Dave Evans, the former head archaeologist for the Humber region where the searches are being carried out. The area "is likely to hold vestiges of many different periods of occupation," Evans said in an email. 

One way to distinguish this "Atlantis" from other lost towns is from the presence of sea walls. The residents knew that coastal erosion threatened their town and tried to prevent it. "In the decades before the town was destroyed in the mid-14th century, its citizens sought a series of quayage grants to build seawalls to protect it from the ravages of sea," Magnusson said. 

cientists are searching for Ravenser Odd, a town that flourished in the Middle Ages before being swallowed by the sea. This photo was taken in November 2021.

cientists are searching for Ravenser Odd, a town that flourished in the Middle Ages before being swallowed by the sea. This photo was taken in November 2021. (Image credit: Photo courtesy Steve Simmons)

Scholars generally agreed that the site is considered to be of some importance. "The place sent MPs [members of parliament] to parliament at the very start of the 14th century, so the inhabitants clearly thought of themselves as important at that point," Gwilym Dodd, an associate professor of history at the University of Nottingham, said in an email.

Historical records suggest that the site was prosperous. "Ravenser Odd was one of the most prosperous east coast ports in the Middle Ages, so to find its remains would be very exciting, as it would be a virtual archaeological time-capsule," Magnusson said.

The town's growth may have been fueled in part by off-the-books trade in imported goods. "Ravenser Odd was apparently also a popular place for smugglers and those wishing to avoid paying customs duties, as it was situated so far away from where the King's officials were based; so that [may] also have played some part in its fortunes," Evans said. 

As climate change speeds up coastal erosion in some areas, more modern-day settlements may find themselves in a similar position to Ravenser Odd, Duck said. "This stretch of coast is the most rapidly eroding in Europe," with land loss in some areas reaching 15 feet (5 meters) a year, Duck said. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.