What’s in a name? The Yarmouth Roads shipwreck and the Iberian connection

By Sara Rich

Under 6m of water in the Solent, the strait that separates the Isle of Wight from the British mainland, there is a shipwreck of international importance. It was first excavated in the late 1980s, when it was determined to be a merchant carrack dating to the late 16th or early 17th c. Excavations produced pewter tableware from The Netherlands, Italian pottery, fine bone combs, and a bronze pestle, representing pieces of cargo or personal items of the crew. Near the site, a bronze Alberghetti cannon was recovered, now housed in the Sunken Secrets museum in the town of Yarmouth, although its connection to the shipwreck assemblage is hypothetical. This array of objects suggests that the 30m long merchant vessel had been engaged in trans-European trade at the time of its sinking. But what was its origin?

Timbers from the Yarmouth Roads shipwreck were exposed during excavations at the stern in the late 1980s.

Timbers from the Yarmouth Roads shipwreck were exposed during excavations at the stern in the late 1980s.

From the diverse joining methods (bolts and nails of iron along with wooden treenails) used in the vessel’s construction, the ship is supposed to have issued from a Spanish shipyard. Archival research in the High Court of Admiralty Records produced a reference to the Santa Lucia, a Spanish ship carrying a cargo of wool to Flanders in 1567, and that by fortune perished and was lost in the seas thwart of Yarmouthe in the Isle of Wighte. However, identifying the Yarmouth Roads Protected Shipwreck as the wrecked Santa Lucia comes dangerously close to circular reasoning – the initial assumption of the ship as Spanish is already arguable, so a link with the Santa Lucia cannot be more than tenuous, or circumstantial. What this scenario does demonstrate is the distinctly human need to name things. For some reason, we cannot just let the shipwreck be anonymous; its importance is assumed to be much greater if its original name is reinstated, despite the fact that its actual cultural relevance would remain the same. There are several similar problems associated with the name game in nautical archaeology. Foremost among these is that ship identities were as fluid as the waters they sailed on – they were often commandeered and repurposed under a different name, even in a different language. So reinstating a name is not necessarily the same as identifying its origin. Often archival references will identify a ship by the name it was ‘born’ with or the one it ‘died’ with, but in the meantime, there may have been several others.

Oak frame sample from the bow of the Yarmouth Roads Protected Shipwreck.

Oak frame sample from the bow of the Yarmouth Roads Protected Shipwreck.

If we want to know the origin, or even the life story, of the shipwreck at Yarmouth Roads, and we do, then we need to ask her timbers. The pewter and pottery may tell us where she’s been or who she’s been trading with, or what utensils the crew liked to eat with, but they won’t tell us where she came from or much at all about where she stopped along the way to face repairs, refittings, or requisitions.

The aims of the ForSEAdiscovery project are ideal for using dendroprovenance to let the timbers narrate the story of the ship’s life. Because the Solent is subject to very strong double (semi-diurnal) tides, the diving window is limited to brief moments of slack tide; therefore, the amount of archaeological work and in situ timber sampling is also limited. So far, our timber sampling campaign has been concentrated in the bow of the ship, which you can see in Maritime Archaeology Trust‘s incredible 3D model of the site. The bow features peculiar diamond-shaped frames, which provided samples of very well-preserved oak. These samples have gone to the project’s wood scientists, who will use ‘cutting edge’ methods like isotope geochemistry, dendrochronology, anatomical features, growth anomalies, DNA analyses, FTIR, and Py-GC/MS to help determine where the timbers came from, and when. Maritime Archaeology Trust is seeking additional funds to resume sampling and excavation, so that we can all hear the riveting stories about this ship’s life. And if she wants, maybe she’ll tell us what she liked to be called.

Dr. Sara Rich works with old wood from submerged landscapes and shipwrecks at Maritime Archaeology Trust / Maritime Archaeology Ltd. in Southampton, UK. She is the Experienced Researcher (ER2) in Nautical Archaeology for ForSEAdiscovery.


5 thoughts on “What’s in a name? The Yarmouth Roads shipwreck and the Iberian connection

  1. Interesting but it doesn’t reflect the 1980s investigations accurately. The archive research that indicated the Santa Lucia as a possible identity didn’t occur until the final stages of fieldwork, so this identification did not inform the investigation strategy. The identity was not an initial assumption nor circular reasoning. There was no ‘need to name’. In fact, the anonymity of the wreck suited the approach being taken, which was to develop regional perspectives and investigation methodologies in the context of an overarching Maritime Sites and Monuments Record (the direct forerunner of marine HERs) rather than pursuing single, named vessels (Mary Rose, Invincible, Amsterdam etc.). Over the course of fieldwork we were able to develop a profile of the wreck based on construction, assemblage, environment etc. which was independent of any documentary record. When the Santa Lucia reference was found, it matched very closely the profile presented materially. It’s a pretty good match – not tenuous, so I think the suggested identification of the wreck as the Santa Lucia is both reasoned and reasonable. I look forward to hearing more about the dendro results, as they will undoubtedly add to the fascination of this wreck. In the meantime, Watson and Gale’s account of the investigations in IJNA (1990) is always worth re-reading. And if the Yarmouth Roads wreck turns out not to be the Santa Lucia, then I don’t think any of the original team will bat an eye.


  2. Hi Anthony, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. It’s really nice to get the perspective of someone involved on the site from the get-go! In no way did I mean to suggest that the archaeology was informed by the archival reference, which I know came after the face; indeed, my intent was not to criticize the 1980s methodology used at all (which produced results so accurate to have been largely validated with higher-tech mapping techniques in Plets et al. 2007). Rather, my critique is of the common insistence in popular publications and recent MA and PhD theses that use “Santa Lucia” and “the Yarmouth Roads Shipwreck” interchangeably. The Watson & Gale (1990 IJNA) article merely says “Mediterranean” origin and then makes a general comparison (citing pers. comm., C. Martin) to the Levantine Spanish armada wrecks based on the iron fittings (although there were treenails used as well), and that the size and structure suggest “a large, full-rigged ship contemporary with vessels termed carracks and galleons.” Another archaeologist involved in the early YR excavations believes it to be of Italian origin (pers. comm., P. Simpson). So first my point is a mere caveat that, with what we know right now, an insistence on linking the two shipwreck events (one historical, one archaeological) is a logical oversimplification — an issue more poignantly addressed in a recent article by M. Harpster (http://www.academia.edu/6541530/Shipwreck_Identity_Methodology_and_Nautical_Archaeology). My second point is just that there is a phenomenon within human perception that if an object has a name, its importance is elevated. This tells us much more about how humans perceive and ascribe value to other objects than it does about the objects themselves, whether a baby, a cat, or a shipwreck.


  3. Hi Sara, Many thanks for clarifying. It’s certainly worth shining a light on the interplay between perceptions and investigations! Developing a critical history of (marine) archaeology is really important. Thanks again for a thought-provoking blog,

    Liked by 1 person

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