This article was originally published in issue 243 of Current Archaeology.
The estuary of Salcombe is a safe haven – for those vessels that manage to enter it. The approach to the estuary, however, is a different matter entirely, with rocks and dangerous reefs forming a notorious graveyard for ships. Halfway along this stretch, just two miles west of Prawle Point, three important wrecks have been discovered coincidentally within close proximity of each other: two of the Bronze Age and the third dating to the 17th century.
The most recent discovery is that of the second Bronze Age wreck, dated to about 800-700 BC. It is of particular importance because it is the remains of a cargo ship that carried a massive load of copper and tin ingots. Though trade in luxury goods between the UK and Europe during the Bronze Age is well attested, this find is the first clear evidence that not just luxury items but bulk commodities were also being transported over long distances. This discovery is shedding new light on the extent and sophistication of Britain’s Bronze Age links with Europe, as well as the likelihood of intricate maritime networks that were traveled by specialist seafarers.
Finding the wrecks
The site of all three wrecks is off Moor Sand, a secluded beach on the rocky coast of south Devon just east of the Salcombe Estuary. The first was found more than 30 years ago, in the summer of 1977 when Phil Baker, then Regional Coach for Yorkshire and Humberside for the British Sub-Aqua Club, was on holiday helping the local Youth Hostel Association by providing try-dives. While diving with Ursula Jurda, a German housewife making her second open water dive, he came across a complete Bronze Age sword lying on the seabed in about 8m of water. Later that day, a rapier blade segment was discovered in the same area. The sword was dated to around 1300-1150 BC, thereby establishing Moor Sand as Britain’s first prehistoric shipwreck site to be found.
An archaeological survey of the area located a further five artefacts; rapier blade fragments and palstaves (bronze axes). These artefacts all belong to the Pennard period, dating to between 1300-1150 BC. A few years later, in 1982, a carps-tongue sword was found, dated to the Ewart Park period, between 800-700 BC – the most prolific phase of all Late Bronze Age metalwork. It was as a result of the early discoveries that Moor Sand was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act.
Fast forward, then, to the spring of 1995, when the South West Maritime Archaeological Group (SWMAG), a team of avocational marine archaeologists, were diving in the Erme Estuary and discovered Bronze Age tin ingots. However, weather conditions prevented SWMAG from returning to the site. Instead, the team decided to investigate a group of four cannon wedged into the side of a gully not far from the Moor Sand site, which had been discovered in 1994 by divers from Henley Sub Aqua Club. Artefacts retrieved from the ocean floor suggested this particular wreck was considerably more recent than the Bronze Age site they had been investigating. Indeed, it was dated to the 17th century and was possibly a Dutch armed merchant ship or perhaps a Xebec, a Moroccan Barbary pirate ship (see Box on p14). This Salcombe Cannon site was now added to the list of sites covered by the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act and the team continued recovery of artefacts.
17th century luxury from Morocco via Holland
Lying close to the Bronze Age wreck was a much later victim of the hazardous rocks challenging entry into the estuary at Salcombe. The diving team from SWMAG realised the cannon they found belonged to an armed ship of the 17th century; however, rather than a warship, she seems to have been an armed merchantman carrying goods that included ceramics from Holland, Portugal and Germany dated from 1580-1650, as well as a pewter bowl and spoons, and a very ornate Baroque clay tobacco pipe, dating from 1635-1645 and likely to be of Dutch origin. These finds suggest the ship may be Dutch – yet its cargo was decidedly different. The team retrieved over 400 Islamic gold coins – the largest number of Islamic gold coins ever found in the UK – suggesting this was, instead, a Moroccan merchant ship or ‘xebec’. The coins have been traced to Marrakesh, mainly dating to the ruler Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603) and his son Zaydan (1608-1627). The two latest coins date from 1631-1636. The assemblage also contains Islamic gold jewellery, probably also Moroccan, including rings and pendants. Much of the gold had been deliberately cut, suggesting trade as a bullion hoard. Though who was bringing this lavish Moroccan treasure to the south coast of England, why, and for whom, is anyone’s guess.
Back to the Bronze Age
In 2001, a magnetometer survey of the site carried out by SWMAG suggested an area some 50m south-east of the site may be worth investigating, and the following year a brief search-and-survey found an adze and cooking pot handle. In 2004, palstaves were recovered, confirming that the team was no longer investigating a 17th century site, but had discovered another Bronze Age one – which was named ‘Salcombe B’ to differentiate it from the 17th century Salcombe Cannon site, called ‘Salcombe A’.
Further investigation discovered more palstaves, rapier blades, gold torcs and gold braided jewellery (see picture below). These objects were dated to 1300-1150 BC, which means that these artefacts were the same period as the first of the artefacts discovered at Moor Sand during the summer of 1977.
A particularly interesting discovery was an object made in Sicily, called Strumento con Immanicatura a Cannone (having a cannon-shaped handle), which, as yet, has no known purpose. It’s importance lies in the fact that it is the first to be recovered in northern Europe in a secure archaeological context, linking the Devonshire coast, via transportation networks, to its point of origin nearly 3,000km away on the southern tip of Italy.
As the site was now gaining importance, in 2005 Wessex Archaeology conducted another magnetometer survey of the site. This survey identified a number of magnetic anomalies that proved worthy of further investigation.
As Moor Sand was just over half a mile away, it seemed obvious that the search should continue from the Salcombe B site towards Moor Sand. Following this strategy, the team promptly found three 17th century Spanish silver coins – an 8 Reale and two 4 Reales – as well as more Bronze Age artefacts. The sites were registered to different licensees under the Protection of Wrecks Act but now, as it was looking more and more as if the archaeology spanned both sites, it seemed sensible that they should be investigated as a single project. So it was that, at the start of 2009, Neville Oldham (Moor Sand licensee), Mick Palmer (Salcombe Cannon Site licensee), and Dave Parham (designated archaeologist for both sites) put together a project plan to combine the sites in one research design. The plan was submitted to, and approved by, English Heritage and during the second half of 2009, SWMAG began diving in the Moor Sand area.
A magnetic anomaly from the 2005 survey was chosen as the point to begin the investigation. This turned out to be the wreck of the MV Jerran, which had caught fire and sunk in August 1994. But on the same dive, one of the team recovered two pieces of copper some 80m away from the wreck. Returning to the place where the copper had been found, SWMAG recovered a leaf sword and three gold wrist torcs. It was the sword that gave the crucial clue to the date of the assemblage: it was typical of the Ewart Park phase of the Late Bronze Age, around 800 BC, some 500 years later than the Salcombe B artefacts, but consistent with those originally found off Moor Sand in 1977.
The discovery that has caused the most excitement is a total of 259 copper ingots, including ten complete ‘bun’ ingots, and 27 tin ingots: the raw materials for a major bronze manufactory. The wreck lies on part of the seabed called Wash Gully, around 300 yards from shore, and there is evidence of Bronze Age roundhouses and field systems on the coast near the site, indicating the vessel may have been attempting to land when it foundered.
There is a lot of copper. The 259 copper ingots weigh a total of 64 kg, and the tin 19 kg. To put this into perspective, the quantity of copper is approximately 0.1% by weight of all the copper believed to have been mined in Britain during the whole of the Bronze Age – which may not sound like a huge quantity until you realise it was all on board just one boat. That there were other boats carrying similar quantities seems certain. According to Ben Roberts, Curator of the European Bronze Age at the British Museum: ‘This is an incredibly exciting find – the first evidence of a proper bulk trade with Europe. We hardly ever get to see evidence of cross-Channel trade in action, and what we’ve got here is potentially part of a huge cargo. It’s phenomenal’. Evidence for trade in bulk goods on land is fairly limited, as the raw materials were often turned into useful items or trade goods such as utensils, weapons or tools. The sea is the only place where bulk goods under transport would have remained unused; therefore, it is not surprising that the SWMAG’s discovery is the first of its kind. The copper was recovered from an extremely small area with most found on top of the reef, indicating that the copper was deposited in one go. The tin is more spread out, but some is intermingled with the copper, indicating that it almost certainly went down at the same time. Given that the ingots went to the seabed in one event and were found in what would have been 10m/12m of water at the time, this can mean only one thing: a shipwreck.
There are a couple of possible explanations as to why the tin is more widely spread. Copper is significantly denser than the tin, and therefore it will sink faster; the ingots are, or were, a bun shape, which is fairly aqua-dynamic. Thus, it makes sense that the copper literally went straight down. By contrast, tin is less dense and the ingots flatter in shape and so will have tended to ‘flutter’ in the current as they sank. This ‘fluttering’ motion, and spending more time in the current as a result, could explain their dispersal over a wider area. It is also possible that the copper went over the side of the boat as it rolled and the tin was still on board as it sank, so what we see is the debris trail of the wreck itself. Or, it may be that a combination of both is what happened. Unfortunately, no ship structure remains, so it is probable we will never know for sure.
Where did the copper come from?
Two copper fragments were sent to Oxford Materials for analysis. The report back from Dr. Peter Northover of Oxford Materials confirmed that the copper was absolutely typical of Late Bronze Age copper ingots and belonged to the Ewart Park period. This meant the date of the copper was consistent with the leaf sword.
Then the report got interesting. Dr Northover concluded that the copper had come from a variety of sources and had exact parallels in composition with a metalworking site in Switzerland. Given this analysis, we decided to investigate where copper mining was taking place throughout Europe during the Late Bronze Age. Mining in Britain and Ireland appeared to be on the decline by this time; in Britain, the only mine producing any quantity was the Great Orme in North Wales, and even that was significantly less than in its heyday during the Middle Bronze Age.
In southern Europe there was significant copper mining taking place at a number of sites, including the Iberian peninsula, alpine Europe (especially Switzerland) and possibly other locations in France and Austria. Based on this information, our hypothesis is that the Swiss site was obtaining its copper locally and that the copper SWMAG had recovered must have been transported either through France, where there are also tin mines, or out of the Mediterranean and around the coast before crossing the channel to Britain. SWMAG would like to have a similar analysis performed on the tin to determine its origin, which would further help in understanding the dynamics of trade at the time.
The assemblage (see picture above) is currently in the process of being acquired by the British Museum where it will undergo more investigation. For SWMAG, 2010 will mean more time on the site and, hopefully, more discoveries. To borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, we have a known known – the current site; it is almost certain that the winter storms will have uncovered more artefacts. We also have a known unknown – the location of the finds is right at the edge of the areas surveyed in 1978 and 1979, which need to be re-investigated using new technology. And, there are the unknown unknowns, but of course, we don’t know what those are yet!
South West Maritime Archaeological Group
With special thanks to Jim Tyson
South West Maritime Archaeological Group
ALL images: South West Maritime Archaeological Group (SWMAG), unless stated.