A new shipwreck site of the 17th century

I’ve just returned from a very exciting week of diving and underwater discovery. For some time now I’ve been on the trail of a shipwreck reported years ago by divers but never investigated. Three days ago I finally found it, having very nearly swum over the site without seeing it on the final day of diving. The site is not protected in any way and lies outside effective archaeological legislation, so I can’t reveal its location yet. This blog just provides a taster in advance of more detailed reports after we’re able to mount further investigations.

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The first photo shows me with the iron cannon that was the only evidence of the wreck from the surface.  You can see how easily it could have been missed! It’s actually in remarkably good condition by comparison with other iron guns I’ve seen in similar exposed situations, some of them so eroded that the bore is visible. This one measured a little over 2.5 metres long with a maximum surviving diameter of 40 cm at the breech and some 22 cm at the muzzle, the bore itself being too corroded to measure.  The length of the gun accords with the eight and a half foot cast-iron ‘drakes’ that were being produced in English foundries by the mid-17th century, though its identity will only be certain once it’s been cleaned and measured precisely.

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The second photo is an actual moment-of-discovery shot.  I normally carry a small camera with me when I excavate, and here you can see me holding up the most exciting small find so far from the wreck, a few seconds after its discovery among sediment and shingle in a rocky gully. It’s a Spanish silver one-real coin, a ‘piece-of-one’, blackened by silver sulphide corrosion.  Smaller denomination Spanish coins such as this often survive poorly in shipwreck sites, corroded to wafer-thin disks of silver, but in this case the cross on the obverse was just visible. There can be little doubt that the coin was minted in one of the Spanish colonial mints – such as Mexico City or Potosi – and made its way across the Atlantic on board one of the great treasure galleons of the Spanish Main.  The date and mint marks were not visible, but the coin was clearly a hand-struck ‘cob’ produced before milling took over in the 18th century.

We think it likely that this is a documented wreck of the mid-17th century, possibly of English or Dutch origin. It would be normal for ships of any nationality at that date to carry Spanish silver, as personal possessions, shipboard supply or cargo. Our next task is to carry out exhaustive archival research to find out all we can about the ship and the wrecking. At the moment it looks as if there will be very little surviving record of the ships’ equipment or cargo, increasing the grounds for an excavation.  The wreck lies in a shallow-water, high-energy environment, yet probing in gullies beneath the sand and shingle revealed blackened anoxic layers with potential for the preservation of more artefacts.

As always it’s thrilling for me to find a new wreck, but a challenge to think of how to fit in another excavation with my book-writing schedule!