Grave slabs raised from England’s oldest wreck

Diver with the splayed-cross grave slab (Bournemouth University)
Diver with the splayed-cross grave slab (Bournemouth University)

Last Updated on June 9, 2024 by Steve Weinman

Maritime archaeological divers from Bournemouth University have retrieved two engraved grave slabs from England’s earliest-known shipwreck.

Heavy-duty lifting equipment was needed to raise the burial stones from the mid-13th-century Mortar Wreck, which lies at a depth of 7m in Dorset’s Studland Bay, on 4 June. The operation took around two hours.

The large, well-preserved clinker ship from the reign of King Henry III was found in 2019, given the highest-level Protected status in 2022 and a report on Divernet that year showed the two unpolished grave slabs that had been discovered at the site.

Diver with the wheel-headed stone grave slab (Bournemouth University)
Diver with the wheel-headed stone slab (Bournemouth University)

One was carved with an early-13th-century-style wheel-headed cross, and was 1.5m long with a weight of 70kg.

The other stone bore a later splayed-arm cross, which had not previously been known to have been produced at the same time as the wheel-headed style. This slab was originally 2m long and weighed 200kg but was broken in two.

Recovery barge at the wreck-site (Bournemouth University)
Recovery barge at the wreck-site (Bournemouth University)
Lifting the 70kg wheeled-cross slab (Bournemouth University)
Lifting the 70kg wheeled-cross slab (Bournemouth University)

The stones are thought to have been intended for use as coffin-lids or crypt monuments for high-ranking clerics.

“The wreck went down in the height of the Purbeck stone industry and the grave slabs we have here were a very popular monument for bishops and archbishops across all the cathedrals and monasteries in England at the time,” said Bournemouth University maritime archaeologist Tom Cousins, who has been leading the project from the start.

He said that similar examples had been found in Westminster Abbey and Canterbury and Salisbury Cathedrals.

Tom Cousins led the recovery operation (Bournemouth University)
Tom Cousins led the recovery operation (Bournemouth University)
Top half of the larger slab, with its splay-headed cross (Bournemouth University)
Top half of the larger slab, with its splay-headed cross (Bournemouth University)

It was Cousins and his team who first dived what had been marked only as an obstruction in 2019, following a tip-off from local charter skipper Trevor Small.

A combination of low-oxygenated water, sand and stones had preserved one side of the hull, and analysis of the ship’s timbers has shown them to be Irish oak felled between 1242 and 1265. This type of timber was widely exported, so the ship was not necessarily Irish.

“Although Purbeck marble was quarried near Corfe Castle, there has always been a debate about how much work was done here and how much was done in London,” says Cousins.

“Now we know they were definitely carving them here, but they hadn’t been polished into the usual shiny finish at the time they sank, so there is still more we can learn.”

Also found on the wreck to date and recovered have been a large stew cauldron and a smaller one for heating water, along with cups, pottery and kitchen items.

Mortar Wreck contents
Contents of the Mortar Wreck (Bournemouth University)

Cousins' team is continuing to survey the Mortar Wreck and he hopes it will provide a training ground for the next generation of archaeologists at Bournemouth University.

“We’ve already started teaching our second-year students to dive and as they get into the third year we’re going to take them out to sea and teach them their first steps to becoming maritime archaeologists,” he says. 

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Once the grave slabs have been desalinated and conserved they will be displayed in a new Shipwreck Gallery at Poole Museum, which is due to reopen following renovation next year.

Only divers under Historic England licence are allowed to visit the wreck-site. Details of the Mortar Wreck discoveries are to be published soon in the journal Antiquity

Also on Divernet: 750-year-old wreck found off Dorset – timbers and all, Diving brothers’ wreck find ‘biggest since Mary Rose, Divers find tragic White Ship

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This week, it looks like DPV manufacturer ScubaJet has begun insolvency proceedings. PADI has distributed half a million dollars in their Project Aware campaign. Dorset coastguard have called off the search for a missing diver. And the Pearl Fleet has commented on a viral video of a shark-dive that didn’t go so well
https://taucher.net/diveinside-insolvency_proceedings_at_scubajet-kaz9246
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#AskMark hi! I was hoping you could help me understand the interchangeability of a DSMB and a simple SMB if I only plan to use it when I deploy it during my safety stop at 5 meters. I used the simple version for this purpose during my last liveaboard and despite occasionally having to reinflate at the surface due to some air escaping while being deployed underwater, it didn’t seem to be too problematic and so I was wondering if it’s necessary to have a DSMB for this purpose? The issue for me is that somehow I tend to end up misplacing my SMB quite often and so the price difference between the two makes it a more acceptable loss when it’s replacing the SMB regularly rather than the DSMB at double the cost
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