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Rare Elizabethan ship discovered in CEMEX quarry

Wessex Archaeology

Remains of vessel discovered in sand and gravel quarry 300m from the coast at Dungeness

IN April 2022, a team from CEMEX unexpectedly uncovered the remains of a rare Elizabethan-era ship, while dredging for aggregates at a quarry on the Dungeness headland, in Kent.

Found some 300m from the coast, the discovery stumped the quarry team, who contacted archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology to study the remains.

 

Recognizing the significance of the extraordinary discovery, Kent County Council enlisted specialist support and emergency funding from Historic England.

Very few English-built 16th-century vessels survive, making this a rare discovery from what was a fascinating period in the history of seafaring.

The late 16th century was a period of great expansion of trade, with the English Channel serving as a major route on Europe’s Atlantic seaboard.

Although the ship remains unidentified, it represents an era when English vessels and ports played an important role in this busy traffic.

More than 100 timbers from the ship’s hull were recovered, with dendrochronological analysis, funded by Historic England, dating the timbers that built the ship to between 1558 and 1580 and confirming it was made of English oak.

This places the ship at a transitional period in Northern European ship construction, when ships are believed to have moved from a traditional clinker construction (as seen in Viking vessels) to frame-first-built ships (as recorded here), where the internal framing is built first, and flush-laid planking is later added to the frames to create a smooth outer hull.

This technique is similar to what was used on the Mary Rose, built between 1509 and 1511, and the ships that would explore and settle along the Atlantic coastlines of the New World.

Andrea Hamel, marine archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology, said: ‘To find a late 16th-century ship preserved in the sediment of a quarry was an unexpected but very welcome find indeed.

‘The ship has the potential to tell us so much about a period where we have little surviving evidence of shipbuilding but yet was such a great period of change in ship construction and seafaring.’

Although uncovered 300m from the sea in what is today a quarry, experts believe the site would have once been on the coastline, and that the ship was either wrecked on the shingle headland or was discarded at the end of its useful life.

Its discovery presents a fascinating opportunity to understand the development of the coast, ports and shipping of this stretch of the Kent coast.

Antony Firth, head of marine heritage strategy at Historic England, said: ‘The remains of this ship are really significant, helping us to understand not only the vessel itself but the wider landscape of shipbuilding and trade in this dynamic period.

‘CEMEX staff deserve our thanks for recognizing that this unexpected discovery is something special and for seeking archaeological assistance.’

Using laser scanning and digital photography, archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology have recorded the ship. Once their work is complete the timbers will be reburied in the quarry lake where they were uncovered so that the silt can continue to preserve the remains.

The story of this rare Elizabethan ship featured on ‘Digging for Britain’ on BBC2 on 1 January 2023. The programme’s presenter, Professor Alice Roberts, said: ‘This was one of those completely unexpected finds. Who expects to find a historic shipwreck in a quarry?

‘Luckily, the workers recognized they’d stumbled on something quite extraordinary and called in the experts from Wessex Archaeology. This large piece of a hull is so well preserved, it’s giving us precious insights into Elizabethan shipbuilding.’

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