Basic Site Facts
Period: Bronze Age
Location: Erme Estuary, Devon
Reason for Designation: national historical interest
Wreck History and Loss
The site comprises a scattered group of tin ingots that probably represent the lost cargo of a trading vessel; however, there is no evidence of a vessel structure surviving on the seabed. A number of badly corroded timbers were found close to the ingots but were dated at about 4200BC, well before any metal processing in the area and it is assumed to be part of a submerged forest rather than from a shipwreck. Unfortunately, with no associated evidence, the tin ingots are very difficult to date.
Discovery and Investigation
The ingots were discovered by chance in 1992 by the South West Maritime Archaeological Group. The group was licensed to investigate the nearby Erme Estuary designated site (37) and were trying to establish the limits of archaeological material outside the protected area of this site when they chanced upon the ingots. Some of the ingots were visible on the seabed whilst others were buried; collectively they were recorded using visual and metal-detector surveys methods. Some of the archaeological work has been published in relevant journals.
Following proper recording a total of 44 ingots have been recovered from the site by the South West Maritime Archaeological Group, all have been loaned to the Royal Albert Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter and are on display there.
The collection consists of heavy abraded crude tin ingots ranging in form and weight, the largest weighing 12.95kg and the smallest 0.256kg, most are less than 1.5kg. Forms present include round and oval with two 'H' shapes. These forms are similar to ingots found elsewhere on both Iron Age (eg Castle Dore and Chun Castle) and early medieval sites (notably at Par Beach, St. Martins Scilly, Trethurgy, St Austell and Praa Sands) in the south-west.
The origins of the ingots are a subject of much discussion but are likely to have been Devon or Cornwall, both major sources of tin, and the varying sizes and forms of the ingots may be indicative of a cargo of material brought from a variety of locations for transit. Early medieval imported Mediterranean pottery found in south west and Irish Sea has been linked to tin export from the south west, and has been found close to the wreck site at Mothercombe, which may provide a date for the wreck.
Alternatively the two small 'H' shape ingots have been compared to Diodorus 1st century BC reference to the astragali shaped tin ingots produced by the inhabitants of south west Britain, which if correct would give them an Iron Age date.
A recent English Heritage funded assessment of the site archive by Bournemouth University concluded that the no clear date could be established from the ingots themselves. Their metallic content and form suggests manufacture by a non-industrial process, which could date them from any period between the Bronze Age and the early 18th century.
The lack of any associated shipwreck material that would be expected from Iron Age onwards may suggest a date as early as the Bronze Age. As possible tangible evidence of the much discussed ancient tin trade from the south west of England the ingots have the potential to tell us much about early trade networks and cultural exchange if a firm date for them can be established. How best this can, if at all, be established is currently under consideration.