Plato’s tale of the lost land of Atlantis and the biblical story of the major flood of Noah are the best known of their genre, but most cultures have their own legends of sunken lost lands and massive floods, and their many similarities lend credence to the idea that Atlantis, the biblical flood and their cousins were inspired by real locations and events. While we have numerous texts that recorded the tales in words, there are very few ancient pre-deluge maps to help locate the lands lost to the rains. An example is the legendary lost kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod, the “Lost Land of Wales,” which has a beautiful mythical history and a few reports of underwater sightings of its remains, but no maps to pinpoint the land for modern searchers. That changed recently when two researchers studying the earliest surviving complete map of the British Isles found a pair of islands no longer on modern maps that may be the location of Cantre’r Gwaelod. What will our descendants do when paper maps are gone and so are the digital systems we depend on today? Will we be remembered as residents of a lost land too?
"The Gough Map is extraordinarily accurate considering the surveying tools they would have had at their disposal at that time.”
Simon Haslett, Professor of Physical Geography at Swansea University, was working at Jesus College at the University of Cambridge with David Willis, Jesus Professor of Celtic at the University of Oxford, on a project to find Cantre’r Gwaelod. The Bodleian Library in Oxford University has the Gough Map which is believed to have been made between 1355 and 1366 based on the names and sizes of certain locations. While some scholars think it was made much later, other believe it was actually based on an earlier map from around 1280. Whenever it was made, Haslett and Willis found what they were looking for.
“The two islands are clearly marked and may corroborate contemporary accounts of a lost land mentioned in the Black Book of Carmarthen."
In their paper on the discovery, published in the journal Atlantic Geoscience, the researchers put the location of one island is offshore between the towns of Aberystwyth and Aberdyfi and the other further north towards Barmouth, Gwynedd – both are estimated to be about a quarter the size of Anglesey Island, which measures 260 square miles. The Black Book of Carmarthen is the earliest surviving manuscript written solely in Welsh, and gets its name from its connection to a pre-Norman Conquest priory in Carmarthen and the black color of its binding.
In a poem called “Boddi Maes Gwyddno” (The Drowning of the Land of Gwyddno), the land Cantre’r Gwaelod extended some 20 miles west of the current shoreline into what is now Cardigan Bay and was ruled as part of the Kingdom of Meirionnydd by Gwyddno Garanhir. The land was kept fertile by a dyke with sluice gates for draining the land at low tide. According to the legend, a watchman named Seithennin had too much to drink at a party in the King’s palace near Aberystwyth, didn’t notice a storm blowing in and left the gates open. Over 16 villages were covered and the king was forced to flee the lowlands of Cantre’r Gwaelod and never returned. Some versions of the tale put the blame on a maiden Mererid, who was in charge of the sluice gates and was distracted by a suitor at the party when the storm hit. In any case, the legend was used to explain miles-long ridges running at right angles to the shore – they were said to be remains of causeways to the mainland but are probably glacial formations left behind as the glaciers melted away at the end of the last Ice Age – the real cause of the flooding that caused the land to disappear. Locals in Aberdyfi say you can hear the bells of the lost city ringing on Sunday mornings – a legend which inspired the popular pub song, “The Bells of Aberdyfi.”
"I think the evidence for the islands, and possibly therefore the legends connected with them, is in two strands. Firstly, coordinates recorded by the Roman cartographer Ptolemy suggest that the coastline at the time may have been some 13km (8 miles) further west than it is today. And, secondly, the evidence presented by the Gough Map for the existence of two islands in Cardigan Bay."
Legends are great for books and sing-alongs, but Haslett thinks the map reveals the real reason for the disappearance of the two islands. The study authors tell the Cambrian News they were remnants of a low-lying landscape underlain by soft glacial deposits laid down during the last ice age. The legends of the coastline being miles farther into the sea and walkways connecting them to the mainland may have indeed been true, but a sudden flood creating the lost land may not. Haslett thinks storms and tsunamis, along with the erosion of the soft sediments underneath the lands, caused a gradual loss of the coastline, forcing people to abandon their cities. Of course, ‘slow’ was still pretty fast …
"In roughly a millennium, from Ptolemy's time to the building of Harlech Castle during the Norman period, the seascape had completely altered."
Haslett tells the BBC that later maps showed the islands gone, but a castle up the coast which was built on the coastline ended up farther inland and landlocked. He also warned that this discover should serve as a warning for how our coastlines are and will continue to be altered today due to climate change.
"These processes didn't happen just once, they're still on-going. With rising sea levels and more intense storms it's been suggested that people living around Cardigan Bay could become some of Britain's first climate change refugees, within our lifetimes."
Those who fail to learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. And this time, we don’t have a drunken sluice gate keeper or an amorous maiden to blame – just ourselves.