Beyond the sea

Earthbound ship and submarine

Archaeologists at the University of Winchester have announced that they are going to excavate a First World War submarine, but not under the sea as you might expect – this long-lost submarine is believed to be buried beneath Dartmouth’s Coronation Park.

Simon Roffey, Reader in Archaeology, and David Ashby, who manages the university’s Soil Laboratory, intend to use ground-penetrating radar to help pinpoint the exact location of HMS E52, which was launched in 1917, saw brief service in the First World War, and was sent to the breakers’ yard at Coombe Mud in 1921.

As the name suggests, Coombe Mud was once a tidal creek, where the fishing community’s boats moored, until the town council bought the mudflats and dumped thousands of tons of soil on them to create the park, which opened in 1937 to mark the coronation of King George VI.

‘The “Submarine under the Park” is a local legend,’ says Simon Roffey, who specialises in medieval archaeology but who served on a submarine at an earlier stage of his career – as a weapons technician aboard HMS Onslaught, responsible for maintaining, testing, and firing the torpedoes. His continuing interest in submarines led him to offer to help Lieutenant Thomas Kemp, a training officer at Dartmouth’s Britannia Royal Naval College, in locating the 180ft (55m) by 23ft (7m) vessel, which evidence suggests may lie at the foot of the hill occupied by the college.

The Viking ship beneath a pub car park

Meanwhile, members of a Merseyside community are waiting to hear the results of an investigation of the ancient ship that is believed to lie beneath the car park at the Railway Inn in Meols. In March 2023, a team from Wirral Archaeology used a soil-sampling augur to make approximately 100 boreholes in front of the pub to investigate the waterlogged blue-clay layers beneath the car park, and they are now in the process of investigating the results.

The boat’s remains were originally found by workmen digging the foundations of the pub in 1938, and one of them sketched the find, showing the location of a well-preserved vessel of clinker-built design. A ground-penetrating radar survey carried out in 2007 demonstrated that the vessel is still buried approximately 9ft (3m) underneath the surface.

Professor Steve Harding, Director of the National Centre for Macromolecular Hydrodynamics at the University of Nottingham, has confirmed that wood fibres have been found in the samples, and these will be radiocarbon dated as well as analysed for the state of preservation and the origins of the wood (using stable isotope and species identification). Steve said the boat may be a relatively modern fishing boat or transport vessel, but it could be much older, possibly Viking in origin: ‘We are keeping an open mind,’ he said.

Land beneath the sea

By contrast with landlocked vessels, Bradford University has announced that PhD student Ben Urmston is to undertake trials to see whether magnetometry can be used to pinpoint areas of human activity in submerged landscapes. Much used by terrestrial archaeologists to find ‘anomalies’ that might indicate the presence of archaeological features, the technique could be of value to archaeologists searching for prehistoric settlements in the drowned North Sea landscape of Doggerland.

A new project using magnetometry is hoping to help pinpoint areas of human activity in submerged landscapes, including Doggerland, the area of the North Sea that acted as a land bridge between Britain and the Continent more than 10,000 years ago. IMAGE: Walker et al. (2020) Antiquity, image by M Muru

Ben hopes that small changes in the magnetic field will indicate peat bogs, river channels, and middens where animal bone and mollusc shells have accumulated. Ben said, ‘If we detect features that could indicate a midden, we can then target that area and take a sample of the seabed. We can send the organic matter for carbon dating, which can usually tell within a decade or two when that was laid down.’ 

There is an urgency to the work because of the unprecedented expansion of offshore wind power to combat climate change, spearheaded by the UK’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050. Professor Vince Gaffney, who leads Bradford’s Submerged Landscape Research Group, said: ‘Exploring the submerged landscapes beneath the North Sea represents one of the last great challenges to archaeology. Achieving this is becoming even more urgent with the rapid development of the North Sea for renewable energy.’

The North Sea is not the only focus for academics at the University of Bradford specialising in the emerging discipline of submerged landscapes research. Geo-archaeologist Dr Simon Fitch is about to embark on a five-day survey of the Adriatic using 3D seismic sensors in the first ever mission to map the northernmost arm of the Mediterranean, lying between Italy and the Balkans. Humans in the late Palaeolithic, between 10,000 and 24,000 years ago, lived mainly on the coastline at a time when sea levels were up to 100m lower than they are today, meaning much of the archaeology of this period now lies below the waves. In a joint project with the University of Split and the Flanders Marine Institute, Simon will use supercomputers to turn the hundreds of terabytes of scan data into maps showing lost river valleys, hills, and other features, from which deductions can be made about where people might have lived.

A new island in the Solent

The idea that the relationship between land and sea is a one-way process – with more sea drowning more land as icecaps melt and sea-levels rise – was disproved in February when two yachtsmen planted a flag on a new island that had formed in the Solent. Yet to be added to Ordnance Survey maps, the island is comprised of freshly deposited shingle, forming a bank of about half an acre in extent, some 100m (330ft) long by 20m (65ft) wide.

Nick Ryley and Chris Fox sailed five miles to reach the island. There they planted the red, white, and blue pennant of the Royal Lymington Yacht Club, Hampshire, and named it Lentune Island, the name by which Lymington was known in Domesday Book. Visible at low tide, Lentune lies to the east of Henry VIII’s Hurst Castle, and Dr Luciana Esteves, Associate Professor in Physical Geography at Bournemouth University, believes the island has resulted from efforts by English Heritage to protect the fortification. Following the undermining and collapse of a stretch of the castle’s walls in 2021, some 7,500 tonnes of shingle were excavated from the nearby seabed and placed alongside the castle.

Andrew Colenutt, Head of Hydrography at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said that they and the Channel Coastal Observatory had been monitoring Hurst Spit and the frontage around the castle for 30 years and had observed that the beach and foreshore shingle was highly mobile in this area, changing constantly according to the tidal currents and weather conditions.

Boat-borne pilgrims

Sherds travelled to Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in March to attend a conference on modern pilgrimage and to help launch the Irish arm of the new ‘Ancient Connections’ pilgrimage route. This celebrates the friendship between St David (c.AD 500-589), patron saint of Wales and founder of the monastery at St Davids, Pembrokeshire, and his pupil and protégé St Aidan (c.AD 550-632). St David gave St Aidan a hive of bees as a parting gift when the time came for him to return to Ireland, where he founded a monastery at Ferns in County Wexford. The bee has now been adopted as the symbol of this new waymarked route, which meets the North Sea at Rosslare on the Irish side and Fishguard on the Welsh side. Whereas Aidan and his bees probably had to cross the Irish Sea by coracle, a modern ferry service provides pilgrim transport.

Pilgrims in St Davids marking the launch of the Welsh end of the Ancient Connections route on 1 March 2023, St David’s Day. IMAGE: C Catling

Following an ancient drovers’ lane on the Irish side of the route, Sherds took shelter from the rain in a traditional Irish Storytelling House just outside Camolin, near Enniscorthy. These admirable institutions used to be much more common than now as a gathering place for the dispersed local community, where people would meet once or twice a week to recite a poem, tell a story, sing a song, or play music.

While seated in this ancient thatched house, consuming tea and homemade cake beside a warming peat fire, it struck Sherds that every community could benefit from such an institution, and that this would be an excellent use for the many places of worship potentially facing redundancy. After all, as the late Ronald Blythe once said: ‘churches are stories that one can actually enter; the church is the most history-soaked artefact in the possession of a community; a house of words as well as of wood and stone’.