Gravestones and grindstones: one of England’s earliest-known shipwrecks discovered off Dorset

A 13th-century merchant vessel carrying a cargo of Purbeck marble has been identified as the earliest-known wreck site to be found with surviving timbers in English waters. Carly Hilts reports.


The earliest-known shipwreck with intact timbers in English waters has been identified off the coast of Dorset.

Dating to the 13th century, the vessel was discovered in Poole Bay by Trevor Small, who has operated diving charters in the area for 30 years. Trevor reported his find to archaeologists at Bournemouth University, and their investigations revealed that one side of its clinker-built hull had been preserved thanks to being buried in sand and stones.

Although much earlier wreck sites have been identified – including the Langdon Bay wreck and the Moor Sand wreck, both dating to the Bronze Age – they are represented only by the remains of their cargo; the Poole Bay ship is the oldest where part of the hull survives. Moreover, ships pre-dating AD 1700 are extremely rare, Historic England reports, and there are no other wrecks of seagoing vessels from the 11th-14th centuries known to survive in territorial waters adjacent to England.

A diver examines one of the decorated gravestones that the 13th-century Mortar Wreck vessel had been carrying at the time it sank. PHOTO: Bournemouth University.

Analysis of the vessel’s hull revealed it to be made from Irish oak, although this does not necessarily mean that it was built in Ireland, as this kind of timber was widely exported for use in medieval shipbuilding. Questions of its date are easier to solve, however, as dendrochronological analysis revealed that the trees used in its construction had been felled between 1242 and 1265, placing the ship in the reign of Henry III (r. 1216-1272).

Mortars and vessel

Although the vessel’s name remains unknown, it has been dubbed the ‘Mortar Wreck’ because it was carrying a cargo of Purbeck stone including several large mortars used by millers to grind flour. Also known as ‘Purbeck marble’, as it can be highly polished, this form of limestone was a popular material for Gothic architecture across medieval Britain and continental Europe. It was also used for monuments including grave markers (particularly in southern England, although they were also exported to Ireland and the Continent), and the Mortar Wreck vessel had been carrying three (two complete and one incomplete) at the time of its loss.

right A diver examines one of the decorated gravestones that the 13th-century Mortar Wreck vessel had been carrying at the time it sank. below Cauldrons, mortars, and other objects recovered from the wreck.
Cauldrons, mortars, and other objects recovered from the wreck. PHOTO: Bournemouth University.

The complete slabs were pre-carved but not yet polished, and were found in such immaculate condition that chisel marks could still be seen on their surfaces. One was decorated with a wheel-headed cross typical of the early 13th century, while the other had a splay-armed cross that is stylistically dated to the mid-13th century. The presence of both examples together is very significant for our understanding of how such slabs were produced, Brian and Moira Gittos from the Church Monuments Society said. ‘Even at this early stage in the investigation, it has been clearly demonstrated that two cross-head designs which were previously thought to be part of a developmental sequence were actually in use at the same time,’ they commented. ‘Further work on the wreck is very likely to greatly enhance our understanding of the work of the medieval Purbeck marblers.’

As well as the ship’s cargo, objects that would have been used by its crew were recovered by the Bournemouth University team, including a large cauldron for cooking food, a smaller one with a long handle that would have been used for heating water, and a number of mugs. Finds from the wreck are set to go on display in one of Poole Museum’s three new maritime galleries, which are set to open to the public in 2024 following a £4.3 million redevelopment supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund.

Protected status

The Mortar Wreck site has now been designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, together with two other wrecks, found near the Needles Channel off the Isle of Wight by divers Martin Pritchard and Dave Fox, who are investigating the wrecks with the Maritime Archaeology Trust and Wessex Archaeology. This brings the total of Protected Wrecks in English waters to 57.

below There are currently 57 protected wreck sites in English waters.
There are currently 57 protected wreck sites in English waters. Image: Historic England.

Of the other two wrecks, one (‘Shingles Bank Wreck NW96’) is thought to be that of a 16th-century merchant vessel, as its contents include 50 large lead ingots of fixed size and weight (used as currency in trade) that had been cast in a ‘bole’ – a kind of furnace that had gone out of use by c.1580. There were also a number of stone cannonballs, which had been replaced by iron shot by the end of the 16th century.

The other wreck (‘Shingles Bank Wreck NW68’) has been interpreted as an armed vessel, possibly of Dutch origin, from the 17th century. Together with a large anchor, its site yielded three cannons, one of which was cast in Amsterdam between c.1621 and 1661. This places the ship within the scope of the 1653 Battle of Portland, which was fought between Oliver Cromwell’s navy and that of the Dutch Republic in the First Anglo-Dutch War.

To find out more about the Mortar Wreck, NW96, or NW68, go to and search for 1474570, 1469107, and 1469106 respectively.