Medieval shipwreck found off Dorset is declared the oldest of its kind

Inside the UK’s OLDEST shipwreck: 750-year-old Mortar Wreck off the coast of Dorset is declared the oldest of its kind and granted the highest level of protected status

  • The UK’s oldest shipwreck has been given protected status under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973
  • The 750-year-old ‘Mortar Wreck’ was discovered by a local diver in Poole Bay, Dorset in 2020
  • It is the oldest known wreck where the remains of the hull are still visible, and is made of Irish oak
  • Mortars, pottery, cooking cauldrons and carved gravestones made of Purbeck stone were found at the site
  • Two other shipwrecks from the Isle of Wight have also been granted the highest level of protection status 

A Medieval shipwreck discovered off the coast of Dorset has been declared the UK’s oldest and has been granted the highest level of protected status.

First discovered in the waters of Poole Bay in 2020, it is known as the ‘Mortar Wreck’ because it was found carrying mortar bowls used for grinding grain into flour.

Tree-ring dating of the ship’s timbers revealed it is at least 750 years old, making it the oldest known wreck where the remains of the hull are still visible.

No other wrecks of seagoing ships have ever been found in English waters from the 11th to the 14th century.

The Mortar Wreck has today been granted the highest level of legal protection by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Two other sites near the Isle of White, dating from the 16th and the 17th century, have also been given protected status under the advice of Historic England.

Diver viewing a decorated Purbeck stone gravestone on the 13th century Mortar Wreck in Poole Bay, Dorset. It has today been granted the highest level of legal protection by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)

The Mortar Wreck was first located by diver and skipper Trevor Small, who has operated diving charters from Poole for the past 30 years, on the edge of the Swash Channel in Poole Bay, Dorset

It is known as the ‘Mortar Wreck’ because it carried mortar bowls used for grinding grain 

Numerous artefacts were found onboard the Mortar Wreck, including cauldrons, cups, pottery and kitchen objects (pictured)

Two other sites near the Isle of White, dating from the 16th and the 17th century, have also been given protected status under the advice of Historic England. A bronze canon (pictured) was found at the site of the Shingles Bank Wreck NW68. The arms are of Phillip IV of Spain and the gun was made near Brussels for his army

The year 1628 was engraved on the cannon found at the site of the Shingles Bank Wreck NW68. It was used to help date the NW68 vessel to the mid to late 17th century

WHAT IS THE MORTAR WRECK? 

The Mortar Wreck is a 750-year-old shipwreck that was discovered in Poole Bay, Dorset in 2020.

It is the oldest known wreck found in English waters where the hull is still visible.

The trees used to construct the ship were of Irish oak and were felled between 1242 and 1265, during the reign of King Henry III.

Mortar bowls and pre-carved gravestones made from Purbeck stone were discovered at the site of the wreck.

It is still not known where the vessel was headed or why it sunk, but one theory is that it may have been lost on its way out from the Dorset coast. 

Today it has been designated a protected wreck site under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.

The Mortar Wreck was first located by diver and skipper Trevor Small, who has operated diving charters from Poole for the past 30 years, on the edge of the Swash Channel.

He said: ‘I was born into a seafaring family. I’ve skippered thousands of sea miles looking for shipwrecks from my home port of Poole.

‘In summer 2020, I discovered what I believed to be an undetected wreck site. 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.’

The vessel is known as a clinker ship in its design, is made from overlapping planks of wood. 

The trees used to construct the ship were of Irish oak and were felled between 1242 and 1265, during the reign of King Henry III.

The first artefacts discovered on the 65x49ft (20×15 metre) site were the mortar bowls, but shortly after so were two pristine pre-carved gravestones made from Purbeck stone.   

Purbeck stone is a form of limestone made from densely packed shells of freshwater snails

One depicts a wheel headed cross and the other has a splayed arm cross – both of which were common 13th century styles.

Chisel marks can still be seen left by the highly skilled stonemasons who crafted their designs.

These types of gravestones were a mark of high status and are found in churchyards across the south coast.

The slabs remain unpolished, suggesting that the polishing would have occurred when they reached their intended destination. 

It is still not known where the vessel was headed or why it sunk, but one theory is that it may have been lost on its way out from the Dorset coast.

Experts at Historic England and Bournemouth University archaeologists are continuing to investigate the wreck.

Irish oak was widely exported for shipbuilding during the Medieval Period, and Purbeck marble gravestone slabs were used across the south of England as well as sent to Ireland and continental Europe.

This wreck thus reveals the web of maritime trade and contacts in the Channel and Irish Sea in this period. 

Maritime archaeologist Tom Cousins, from Bournemouth University, said: ‘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.

‘A combination of low-oxygenated water, sand and stones has helped preserve one side of the ship, and the hull is clearly visible.’

The Mortar Wreck has been designated a protected wreck site under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, along with the two other Isle of Wight vessels.

This means that divers need to request a licence from the DCMS before diving on the sites in order to protect the structures and the artefacts within them.

Diver viewing a decorated Purbeck stone gravestone on the 13th century Mortar Wreck, Poole Bay, Dorset. Purbeck stone is a form of limestone made from densely packed shells of freshwater snails

The Mortar Wreck vessel is known as a clinker ship in its design, is made from overlapping planks of wood. The trees used to construct the ship were of Irish oak and were felled between 1242 and 1265. Pictured are planks of wood found from the wreck

The other two protected sites are the 16th century Shingles Bank Wreck NW96 and 17th century Shingles Bank Wreck NW68, that were found off Needles Channel in 2020.

The NW96 site was dated by the over 50 large lead ingots discovered there, which were casted using a technique that fell out of use around 1580.

The ingots were of fixed size and weight and would have been used as a currency for trading purposes.

They would have also been melted down to make products including bullets, lead flashing on roofs and pipes, Historic England said.

Stone cannonballs were also present at the site which were replaced with iron shot by the end of the 16th century, placing the ship in the 16th or very late 15th century.

Along with these artefacts, several cannons and a large anchor have also been recovered by divers at the NW96 wreck.

The NW96 site was dated by the over 50 large lead ingots discovered there, which were casted using a technique that fell out of use around 1580. Pictured are markings on cargo from the NW96 wreck

Archaeologists believe the vessel of the NW68 wreck could have participated in the Battle of Portland in 1653, when the fleet of the Commonwealth of England was attacked by the Dutch Republic during the First Anglo-Dutch War.

It is believed that both the NW68 and NW96 vessels became stranded on the Shingles Bank in the channel before sinking. Pictured is a 3D model of a small part of the NW68 wreck site

The NW68 vessel was dated to the mid to late 17th century, as its cargo includes a canon that was cast in Amsterdam between 1621 and 1661.

Archaeologists believe it could have participated in the Battle of Portland in 1653, when the fleet of the Commonwealth of England was attacked by the Dutch Republic during the First Anglo-Dutch War.

The two sides were locked in a struggle for supremacy over the Channel.

It is believed that both of these vessels became stranded on the Shingles Bank in the channel before sinking.

The finds are being investigated by archaeologists from the Maritime Archaeology Trust and Wessex Archaeology, along with the finders Martin Pritchard and Dave Fox. 

Surviving wrecks dating pre-1700 is extremely rare, Historic England said, as is finding previously unrecorded wrecks in the Solent, which is a busy shipping route.

With the addition of these three wreck sites, there are now 57 Protected Wreck Sites in English waters.

Heritage Minister Nigel Huddleston said: ‘These fascinating shipwrecks can reveal so much to us about our national history and it is right that we protect them for future generations.’

Martin Pritchard, co-finder of the Shingles Bank wrecks, added: ‘I am very pleased that these shipwrecks dating to the 16th and 17th centuries have been granted the highest level of protection.  They are a remarkable find.’

A map of the 57 protected shipwrecks in the UK. Divers need to request a licence from the DCMS before diving on these sites in order to protect the structures and the artefacts within them

World’s deepest shipwreck FOUND: WWII US Navy ship discovered more than 22,600ft below the surface 

More than 22,600 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean lies a WWII US Navy destroyer that has been named the world’s deepest shipwreck.

The USS Destroyer Escort Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413), known as the Sammy B, was located on Wednesday in the Philippine Sea.

The vessel went down during the Battle Off Samar in the Philippine Sea in October 1944 after it was hit by Japanese fire.

The Sammy B, however, was not discovered by scientists, but by Texas billionaire Victor Vescovo, who owns a deep-diving submersible.

Vescovo shared a video on his Twitter account showing Sammy B laying on the seafloor.

‘It appears her bow hit the seafloor with some force, causing some buckling,’ he shared in a tweet.

 Read more here

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