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Cover of British Archaeology 91

Issue 91

November/December 2006



New finds 30 years on from the drought of 76

Houses near Stonehenge astonish archaeologists

Roman pool may be for early Christian baptism

Logboat's last voyage launches new journey

In Brief


English landscape: lovely, isn't it? It's dead
Cider with trunk roads - Trevor Rowley casts an archaeological eye on the last century

Final proof of ancient UK contact with Sicily?
Salcombe and Dover - Bronze age wrecked cargoes in Devon and Kent

Science: evidence for ancient dairying
Neolithic farmers milked their animals in 4000BC

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Questioning the wrecks of time

They lay on the sea bed, 530km apart, for over 3,000 years. Hundreds of metal objects from Moor Sand, Devon and Langdon Bay, Kent now promise unique insights into the world of bronze age Europe. David Parham, Stuart Needham and Michael Palmer report.

The investigation of prehistoric "shipwrecks" in the United Kingdom (that is, of supposed cargoes rather than ships, which have not yet been found out to sea) dates back to the 1970s and the very early days of British underwater archaeology. It started with a large scatter of bronze artefacts in Langdon Bay, Kent. Then a much smaller group of bronze weapons and tools was found off the south Devon coast at Moor Sand, Salcombe. Remarkably, both collections date from around the 13th century BC.

The way in which these groups of bronzes came to be on the seabed is little understood. They are generally considered to be cargoes from wrecked boats – which would be amongst the earliest known such sites in the world – but there are other possibilities: they might have resulted from coastal erosion (buried artefacts falling into the sea) or ritual activity (objects deliberately sacrificed to the waves). However, regardless of how they were formed, both assemblages are unique, and contain objects of clear continental types in a coastal location. They thus have great importance for understanding cross-channel connections at the time they were deposited.

The Langdon Bay site was found in 1974 by Dover Sub-Aqua Club, 500m seaward of the famous white cliffs east of Dover Harbour. In May 1978 it was designated a "historic wreck" under the United Kingdom's Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. The British Museum and the National Maritime Museum then led investigations there between 1978 and 1984. Bronze tools, weapons, fittings and ornaments were recovered from 6–10m of water.

Some 360 items make this by far the largest group of metalwork in northwest Europe for this phase of the bronze age (Penard/Bronze Final I). It contains some types that are familiar in neighbouring continental regions, but extremely rare on British soil; some that derive from a more common crosschannel metalworking inheritance; and yet others that are rare at this date anywhere. The well preserved artefacts show scope for identifying different production regions. Provisional interpretation has seen this as a cargo of scrap collected from dispersed locations, mainly along the continental sea-board of the Channel and southern North Sea.

The Moor Sand site was discovered in 1977 by members of a diving school organised by the Youth Hostel Association, in an exposed location just to the west of Gammon Head, some 4km south-east of the entrance to Salcombe Harbour. It too was designated a historic wreck, in March 1978, and work on it was again led by the British Museum and the National Maritime Museum, until 1983. A scatter of bronze tools and weapons lay in 4–8m of water, on a seabed of rock gullies with sand infill descending to sand and gravel offshore.

A detailed search covered 1.5ha surrounding the original find spot, and a further less intensive search of over 5ha was conducted into deeper water. The total of eight objects found consists of six swords or sword fragments and two palstaves (axe blades).

The assemblage from Moor Sand is less easy to characterise than that from Langdon Bay. Firstly, it is a rather small group with only four diagnostic pieces. There must remain the possibility that it is but part of an originally much larger assemblage, particularly since objects had been dispersed across at least 100m of sea bed. Recent discoveries to the south-east of the site now seem to bear this out, as we will describe.

Return to the deep

Fieldwork at Langdon Bay and Moor Sand ceased in the early 1980s. Keith Muckelroy, a pioneering nautical archaeologist whose ideas are still commonly discussed, had been working on them both when he died tragically young in a diving accident in Loch Tay. His role at the National Maritime Museum was taken on by Martin Dean, who continued to work with Stuart Needham, but the recovery of information declined, and post-excavation study ended due to the changing commitments of key personnel.

The 2002 National Heritage Act for the first time brought marine archaeology in England under the wing of English Heritage. This gave it a valued opportunity to provide funds for the work to be completed by a collaborative team from Bournemouth, Oxford and St Andrews universities and the British Museum. But within a few months of the work restarting in earnest, a third similar site was discovered close to Moor Sand. In order to understand the full context of this new discovery, we have to go back over 10 years.

During the summer of 1995 the South West Maritime Archaeological Group (SWMAG), a team of amateur archaeologists who have over many years investigated shipwreck sites around the British coast, completed their work on the Erme Estuary Cannon and Tin Ingot protected wreck sites, for which they had recently received the bsac Duke of Edinburgh's Prize. They now turned their attention to a number of sites close to the nearby port of Salcombe.

These included, amongst others, the 19th century wrecks of the iron barque Merion and the composite tea clipper Gossamer. Another site was a group of cannons situated 400m to seaward of Gara Rock that had been discovered a few years before.

Whilst still setting up the Cannon site survey, the group chanced upon a finger-sized gold ingot and a number of gold coins. They immediately contacted the Receiver of Wreck (to whom all finds from the sea have to be reported) and the Archaeological Diving Unit at St Andrews. With the agreement of the relevant authorities, work continued in secret while the site was excavated and the remainder of the gold and other material recovered.

The find was made public in 1999 when the British Museum acquired the entire assemblage. It consists of the largest collection of Moroccan gold recovered in Europe (over 400 gold Moroccan Dinars, broken pieces of gold jewellery and ingots), Portuguese, Dutch and German pottery sherds, three pewter spoons, a Friesland copper coin of 1627, a sounding weight and a merchant's seal. The pottery dates the wreck to around 1580–1650, and the coins were struck by the Sharifs of the Sa'dian dynasty, who ruled Morocco during the 16th and 17th centuries. The earliest coin has been dated to 1217, and the latest found was struck by Sharif al-Walid (reigned 1631–6). The jewellery, earrings and pendants, similar in style to some still worn in Morocco today, were cut up, perhaps being carried as scrap bullion along with the small number of finger ingots found. This is the first discovery of Moroccan jewellery which can be given a specific date, and it has added greatly to its study.

Work continued on the site. In summer 2004 SWMAG recovered some bronze age objects east of the Cannon site (now called Salcombe A), but within the designated area. This new site has been named Salcombe B.To date 28 items of certain or potential bronze age date have been recovered, and a further three items identified amongst the original 17th century assemblage. The group includes two complete rapiers, nine sword and rapier portions, four palstaves, an unusual palstave/adze, three spearheads, a hammer, a fragment of twisted gold torc, a gold armlet, a probable cauldron ringhandle, two unidentified bronze blocks and a strumento con immanicatura a cannone, an item distinctive of the island of Sicily in the central Mediterranean (literally, an implement with a cannon-shaped handle – Italians do not know what it is either!).

All of the identifiable objects, both gold and bronze, are of the same metalworking phase of the bronze age (c1300–1150BC) – the same period as the finds from Moor Sand, which lies just 500m to the east of the Salcombe aCannon site. That the two assemblages are contemporary and contain some similar types of object might suggest that they are related to one another. But it is not yet understood how they might have become dispersed so widely across the seabed and, prior to further research, we are keeping an open mind as to whether the material resulted from a single wreck or a more complex sequence of events.

The strumento con immanicatura a cannone is a rather blunt-edged socketed implement of uncertain function. It was first identified by comparison with reference material in the British Museum's collections as well as published descriptions, and this was supported by metal analysis. Similar objects occur in some hoard associations in Sicily and can therefore be placed in the local sequence. The dating comes out, rather neatly, as in or around the 13th century BC. Whilst a number of Mediterranean objects of this date have find provenances in north-west Europe, all are from antiquarian collections or have insecure contexts: none can be proven to have left the Mediterranean more than a few centuries ago. The Sicilian object from Salcombe is therefore the first secure object of Mediterranean origin and bronze age date to be found in north-west Europe.

The presence of the Salcombe B finds so close to the Canon site has raised the obvious question as to whether they might have come from this wreck, in which case they would presumably have been antiquarian curios carried on board. However, this is highly unlikely. In the Penard/Bronze Final 1 stage, bronze metalwork was not being deposited with the dead and so could not have come from tombs looted in the 17th century ad or earlier. Again, hoards of this period are generally quite small, smaller than the already extant Salcombe group. The objects in the assemblage have predominantly British or north-west French affinities, as one might expect for a genuine bronze age find from the intervening strip of sea.

The Langdon Bay and Moor Sand collections have contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between object types and their metal composition in continental Europe. The Salcombe B discoveries allow for another opportunity tofurther develop this line of research. The presence of this material on England's south coast would appear to be tangible evidence of cross-channel connections. Such connections have frequently been deduced from land finds, but are rarely attested directly.

It is also well appreciated by bronze age researchers that interlocking maritime networks extended all along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe and ultimately linked in to others traversing the Mediterranean. There may not have been long-distance voyages spanning this whole chain, but this possibility will have to be reconsidered in the light of the Salcombe discovery. The assemblage provides a rare chance to view objects in transit, the nearest that archaeology can get to witnessing trade in action rather than trade as inferred from redistributed material. It has the potential to contribute significantly to the debate about the nature and purpose of bronze age exchange, and the extent to which it underpins social structures and economic growth.

David Parham is a senior lecturer at Bournemouth University. Stuart Needham is curator of European bronze age collections at the British Museum. Michael Palmer is licensee of the South West Maritime Archaeological Group.

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