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?
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.
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.