Excavating the CA archive: maritime archaeology

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 4 January. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI335, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.


Joe Flatman
Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

While outlining CA’s coverage of early modern and modern heritage (CA 333), I mentioned that the magazine’s first report on maritime archaeology was in issue 35 (November 1972). It described work then under way on the Girona, a Spanish armada shipwreck of 1588 lying off County Antrim in Northern Ireland. As a maritime archaeologist by training, it seemed wrong for me not to devote at least one of these subsequent archive excavation columns to the subject, which shares a similar timeline to the magazine itself.

In tracing the appearance of different topics through the pages of CA, it is as interesting to note those themes and sites that do not make an appearance as to note those that do. For a subject that has perennial media appeal, maritime archaeology has not featured as regularly over the years in CA as might be expected. One wonders why this is: is it the sites, the stories, or the tellers of those stories that matter most? If there is a lesson to be learned from CA, it is that, in the oft-used Latin phrase, ‘fortune favours the bold’: regular appearances in CA are most often made by strong-willed individuals determined to get their sites mentioned – though, of course, such projects always have an interesting story to tell.

Ships, stars, and sealing wax
CA’s first maritime story, on a 1588 wreck, came in issue 35.

Unquestionably the happiest maritime narrative of all – and perhaps the best known such site in the UK – is that of Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose. Raised in 1982, she was reported on in the December issue the same year (CA 85), and revisited in CA 218 (May 2008) and 272 (November 2012) – the latter celebrating the 30th anniversary of the recovery (although the discovery of Richard III’s grave knocked the vessel off the front cover). The Solent wrecksite is a place with a story that really resonates: I was one of the many awestruck children glued to the screen throughout the televised recovery, and I still get a tingle down my spine whenever I visit the splendid museum in Portsmouth (see CA 280). Stepping back for a minute, it is also worth remembering just what an impact globally the project had in a tumultuous year. It took place in the autumn of 1982, a year of high drama with the Argentine invasion and subsequent seaborne British recapture of the Falkland Islands. Rarely have politics and heritage coincided to such effect.

Wetland and dry
In 2012, CA celebrated the 30th anniversary of the recovery of the Mary Rose with a feature covering research on the wreck.

Not long after the first report on the Mary Rose, CA 90 (January 1984) covered as different a marine site from that shipwreck as it is possible to imagine: the Iron Age Oakbank crannog in Loch Tay, Perthshire. It was under excavation at the time, and is now beautifully exhibited at another wonderful and equally visit-worthy museum, the Scottish Crannog Centre at Kenmore, near Aberfeldy.

Oakbank is a reminder that maritime work can occur above and across as well as below the waterline, often in very challenging conditions. The next three maritime sites that CA reported on are testament to this: the Bronze Age boat found in Dover in CA 133 (March/April 1993 – see also CA 287 and 295 for follow-ups on this site); the medieval boat found at Magor Pill in south Wales in CA 149 (September 1996); and the medieval ship found at Newport, also in south Wales, in CA 181 (September 2002). All three of these sites were found by chance, deep down in former coastal mudflats, and were challenging sites for their excavators, who had to deal with constant water seepage and thick, sticky mud – conditions ideal for preserving such sites but not conducive to easy or speedy working.

‘Doggerland’ rises
Excavating the remains of Dover’s Bronze Age boat.

Between 2002 and 2011, there was something of a ‘gold rush’ in British archaeology that those of us who were working in the sector at the time often remember fondly, thanks to the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (ALSF). This was a major funding stream for managing sites, natural and historic alike, that were impacted by ‘aggregates’ extraction – sand, gravel, and so on – both above and below water. English Heritage (now Historic England) managed the historic environment side and English Nature and the Countryside Agency (now Natural England) the natural environment side. Hundreds of projects were funded (the results are all available online via the Archaeological Data Service at http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk), but one of the greatest successes of all was the in-depth analysis of the submerged prehistoric landscapes of the North Sea that are collectively known as ‘Doggerland’. CA 207 (January 2007) reported on the work being undertaken by the University of Birmingham, with a follow-up story in CA 314 (May 2016) that gave Jim Leary of the University of Reading’s take.

The lure and the law of the sea

One of the great pleasures of writing this column for CA is noting a site, approach, or individual mentioned in an early issue of the magazine and then tracking the progress of that story across subsequent issues, often years or even decades apart. A prime example of this phenomenon in relation to maritime archaeology comes in CA 40, 124, and 286 – in, respectively, September 1973, May 1991, and most recently January 2014.

The cover feature of CA 286 marked 40 years since the passing of the landmark Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973.

To explain, back in 1973, issue 40 included a note on ‘nautical antiquities legislation’: the then-embryonic 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act, still the primary legislation for protecting sites of this type (the story of its birth was also touched on in an interview with marine archaeologist and founder of the Hastings Shipwreck Museum Peter Marsden in CA 333). Some 18 years later in CA 124, an update reported successes in both wreck sites protected under the Act and also in funding, with a government grant for training in marine survey skills via the Nautical Archaeological Society.

Underlying these brief mentions, however, was endless hard work on dozens of protected wreck sites of all ages and locations by a little-known army (perhaps navy might be a better term) of volunteers, working in the best traditions of British archaeology – with skill and hard work being the key determining factors, not professional or media status. Thus, in 2014, CA 286 rightly celebrated 40 years of this work and these individuals on such sites. More recently, new protected wrecks have been added to this success story. A fantastic recent example is that of HMS London, a Royal Navy vessel lost in the Thames estuary in 1665 and the subject of recent volunteer-led excavations supported by Historic England, as reported in CA 308 (November 2015); see @LondonShipWreck on Twitter for more information on the ongoing work there.

Discover old issues

Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 4 January. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI335’.

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