10 May 2011

Saving the Swash Channel Wreck


English Heritage-funded emergency work brings relief to 17th century wreck.

An emergency operation funded by English Heritage to salvage and conserve a major historic wreck site in British waters will be featured in a new BBC 2 series, 'Britain's Secret Seas', which begins in early May.

Swash Channel, Poole Harbour

Swash Channel, Poole Harbour, off Dorset


The episode to be screened at the end of May will show in detail how a group of academic and graduate maritime archaeologists from Bournemouth University (BU) are diving on 'The Swash Channel Wreck', located 7 metres below the surface off the Dorset coast.

This is one of the country's largest underwater investigations since that of the 'Mary Rose' over 30 years ago. Situated in the shipping channel just outside Poole Harbour, the wreck is that of an unusually large armed merchant ship that went down around the reign of Charles I. Archaeologists and students from BU, who found the site six years ago, believe that it is most likely a Dutch West Indiaman.

Artefacts raised from the Wreck to date include iron cannons, wooden barrels, rigging elements, copper, pewter, bones, ceramic domestic material, leather shoes, musket balls and apothecary jars. The wreck is also adorned with a number of wooden carvings, the oldest examples known in the United Kingdom and could be amongst the oldest of their kind in the world.

One of the most impressive relics recovered is a rare and outstanding carving of a merman, approximately 1m in length. Larger still is the carving of a human head that adorns the top of the ship's rudder, an 8.4m long 2.5 tonne structure which the University hopes to bring to the surface later this summer.

Dendro sampling (tree-ring analysis) of the wood materials of items recovered from the Wreck date to 1629. Like the Mary Rose the wreck has survived because it was quickly buried by seabed sediments. However, recent changes in the seabed mean that the site has been rapidly eroding despite stabilisation work which has included protecting it with various forms of coverings.

It is on English Heritage's Heritage at Risk register and is also one of the 46 sites in the English area of the UK Territorial Sea designated under The Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.

"The Swash Channel wreck is a rarity in British waters containing works of art that seldom survive the wrecking process," said Dave Parham, Senior Lecturer in Marine Archaeology at BU. "Despite these unique features its identity and country of origin remain a mystery. 
"After many years of burial the wreck and its contents have become a delicate organic material," Parham continued. "Unstable metals that contain a huge amount of information about the past make this site a potential treasure trove of information about the world in the early 17th century. This wealth is being rapidly destroyed by the marine environment, particularly wood-boring worms.
"Once these become exposed their remaining life can be measured in months," said Parham. "Recent changes in the seabed in the area of the wreck have meant that the sediments that covered and protected it since it went down have begun to disappear, leaving the site and invaluable treasures highly vulnerable to erosion."

Ian Oxley, Head of Maritime Archaeology at English Heritage, said: "England's seas hold secrets and clues to our nation's illustrious maritime heritage. The Swash Channel wreck is a supreme example of just how important and yet vulnerable this heritage is. Our emergency funding will go directly to rescuing the wreck from further damage, and in doing so not only removing it from the risk register but also contributing to making finds and information from this fascinating site accessible to the wider public through the local museum."

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