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750-year-old wreck found off Dorset – timbers and all

Diver with gravestone
Diver with the wheel-headed cross gravestone (Bournemouth University)
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Maritime archaeologists have been working in Poole Bay off the Dorset coast on remains of the hull, bow and cargo of a ship dating way back to the 13th century – making it the earliest designated wreck site in English waters to include preserved timbers.

The rarity of the find is underlined by the fact that, timbers or not, there are no known wrecks of seagoing ships in English waters from the 400-year period between the 11th and 14th centuries.   

The find has been announced alongside that of two later but also rare shipwrecks off England’s south coast – as all three vessels are given the highest level of official protection.

It was local skipper and scuba diver Trevor Small of Rocket Charters who discovered the mediaeval ship on the western side of the Swash Channel on the approaches to Poole harbour two years ago, and reported his momentous find to the archaeologists at Bournemouth University.

Small, from a seafaring family, says he has covered thousands of sea miles from his home port of Poole searching for shipwrecks. “In summer 2020, I discovered what I believed to be an undetected wreck site,” he says. “Recent storms had revealed something unknown on the seabed. I was granted permission to dive the wreck. The rest is history – I’ve found one of the oldest shipwrecks in England.” 

“Very few 750-year-old ships remain for us to be able to see today and so we are extremely lucky to have discovered an example as rare as this, and in such good condition,” commented Bournemouth University maritime archaeologist Tom Cousins. “A combination of low-oxygenated water, sand and stones has helped preserve one side of the ship, and the hull is clearly visible.” 

Built from the overlapping timber planks that make it a “clinker” ship, the vessel was sailing during the reign of King Henry III and carrying a cargo of Purbeck limestone when it sank. Several stone mortars used for grinding grain have been found at the site, so the vessel is referred to as the Mortar Wreck.

Diver with gravestone
Diver with the splayed-arm cross gravestone (Bournemouth University)

Quarried on the Isle of Purbeck, the stone could be highly polished and was valued for its use in Gothic architecture across Europe at the time. Two well-preserved unpolished gravestone slabs were found on the wreck, one carved with an early 13th-century-style wheel-headed cross and the other with a later splayed-arm cross, two styles not previously known to be contemporaneous.

Also found on the wreck was a large cauldron suitable for making stews, a smaller one for heating water and concreted drinking vessels.

Mortar Wreck contents
Artefacts from the Mortar Wreck (Bournemouth University)
Large cauldron
Large cauldron (Bournemouth University)
mediaeval illustration of cauldron
Mediaeval illustration of a stew cauldron in use at sea (Bournemouth University)
Mug
Drinking mug (Bournemouth University)

Analysis has shown the ship’s hull planks to have been cut from Irish oak trees, felled between 1242 and 1265, although this does not necessarily indicate an Irish vessel because the timber was widely exported for building. One theory is that the ship was based on the Dorset coast but became lost on its way out to wherever it was to deliver the stone.

Cargo finds from the Mortar Wreck are set to be displayed in one of Poole Museum’s three new maritime galleries next year. Tom Cousins said that Bournemouth University was trying to raise funds over summer to provide sandbag protection for the wreck.

Shingles Bank wrecks

The Mortar Wreck along with two much later but also rare shipwrecks discovered off the Isle of Wight have now been designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 by the government, on the advice of Historic England (HE).

The 15/16th-century Shingles Bank Wreck designated NW96 and the 17th-century Shingles Bank Wreck NW68 were discovered off the Needles Channel by Isle of Wight scuba divers Martin Pritchard and Dave Fox.

The Shingles Bank is a well-known navigational hazard for ships entering the Solent from the west, and both vessels are thought to have stranded there before sinking. “The survival of pre-1700 ships is extremely rare, as is the unearthing of previously unrecorded wreck-sites in the Solent, making these discoveries nationally significant,” says HE.

Archaeological remains include several cannon, a large anchor and, on NW96, at least 50 very large lead ingots with unidentified markings that would have been used as a form of currency, as well as stone cannonballs. 

Cannon from NW68 site
Cannon at the NW68 site (Martin Pritchard / MAT)
Diver on the NW68 site
Diver recording surviving timber structure at the NW68 site (Paolo Croce / MAT)

The ingots were cast from a “bole”, a type of furnace rarely used after around 1580, and stone cannonballs were no longer in use by the end of the 16th century.

One of the cannon from NW68 was cast in Amsterdam between 1621 and 1661, suggesting a mid-to-late 17th-century armed Dutch vessel that might have been involved in the 1653 Battle of Portland, an engagement during the First Anglo-Dutch War. 

Last summer Pritchard and Fox dived and are continuing to investigate the wrecks with archaeologists from the Maritime Archaeology Trust and Wessex Archaeology, funded by HE. High-resolution photogrammetry models of the sites are being developed to enable them to be virtually dived.

Martin Pritchard
Isle of Wight diver Martin Prichard with Hefin Meera of HE on the dive-boat (MAT)

“I am very pleased that these shipwrecks dating to the 16th and 17th centuries have been granted the highest level of protection,” said Pritchard. “They are a remarkable find. Working with HE, volunteer divers and archaeologists, we will continue to investigate, understand and record these wreck sites.”

“Congratulations to Martin and Dave – if it wasn't for them these important sites would probably still be undiscovered,” said Wessex Archaeology’s senior maritime technical specialist Graham Scott.

“They are a really good example of the major contribution that is still being made to our understanding of our amazing maritime heritage, and to Historic England’s work by recreational divers and wreck investigators. Yet another great example of what we can achieve when we all work together!”

The three designations brings to 57 the number of protected wreck sites in English waters. Divers require a licence administered by HE on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport to dive these sites.

Also on Divernet: Diving Brothers’ Wreck Find ‘Biggest Since Mary Rose’, Divers Find Tragic White Ship

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