The oldest surviving wreck in English waters, dating from the 13th century, has been given the highest level of protection by the British government after being discovered in Poole Bay in Dorset.
The ship, along with its cargo of stones including two beautifully carved marble burial slabs, was discovered by a local charter boat operator in 2020, after storms disturbed the seabed near a busy shipping route.
Excavations revealed the “exceptionally preserved” wooden remains of one side of her hull, which had been weighed down and protected by the ship’s cargo of worked and unworked Purbeck marble.
Archaeologists were able to identify that the overlapping antlers were Irish oak and – using tree-ring analysis – came from trees felled between 1242 and 1265, during the reign of Edward III.
While the sites of a small number of Bronze Age shipwrecks are known through their surviving cargo, their antlers are long gone, making them the oldest surviving shipwreck in England. Prior to this discovery, there were no known wrecks of seagoing vessels in English waters between the 11th and 14th centuries.
“It’s a really, really significant find,” said Hefin Meara, a maritime archaeologist at Historic England, who oversees protected wrecks on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
“It’s a ship loaded with cargo on its way to somewhere. It’s a cliché but it’s a time capsule – it’s a ship that does exactly what it was supposed to do. And we can learn so much from that.
The two carved tombstones are similar to examples still visible in churches of the period, but unlike them are in pristine condition, with their chisel marks still clearly visible. Each is adorned with a different style of cross, which archaeologists have until now thought dated to different periods, Meara says.
“But it shows that in fact these designs were contemporary and used at the same time. And so the question is, were these things made to order? Or are they speculative and sent off?
“It’s the proof of the industry – they dig the stones, cut them, dress them. And it shows that these are really desirable products [being] exported everywhere, all around the English coast, in Ireland, on the continent. And that gives us a really interesting indication that it wasn’t just the stone itself that was desirable. It is the know-how of local craftsmen.
Two other newly discovered wrecks have also received the same level of protection from the government. Both were found on the Shingles Bank near the Isle of Wight, a well-known navigational hazard to ships sailing past the Needles to the Solent. While these wrecks aren’t quite as old – dating to the 16th and 17th centuries – they are also “exceptionally rare”, according to Heritage England.
The old ship, labeled NW96, was carrying a cargo of lead ingots dating from before 1580 and stone cannonballs. The ingots, of a fixed size and weight, would have been used as currency and later made into bullets, lead pipes or roof flashings.
Several cannons were found on Shingles Bank’s other ship, NW68, one of which was sunk in Amsterdam between 1621 and 1661. Archaeologists believe the ship was likely of Dutch origin and may have been involved in the battle of Portland in 1653 during the First Anglo-Dutch War.
Like the Dorset wreck, these two vessels were discovered by local divers with extensive knowledge of the sea, which Meara said was “really exciting”: “It’s great to have this partnership between us and recreational divers, boat keepers and archaeological societies. It just shows what happens when we all work together. We make these fascinating discoveries.