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Swash without the buckle

Harry Bucknall learns how Bournemouth University scientists are involved in an exciting preservation project on the seabed near the Poole Harbour approaches

Taken from above the location of the Swash Channel Wreck, looking back towards Poole Harbour and Brownsea Island

Taken from above the location of the Swash Channel Wreck, looking back towards Poole Harbour and Brownsea Island (image: Robert Harvey)

Dave Parham fits uncomfortably into his small office at Bournemouth University; the Falstaffian figure is not only surrounded by the tools of academia but also a confusion of rucksacks, wet proof jackets and boots which, together with the canvas shorts and thick fleece that he is wearing when we meet, indicate that the lecture rooms of Dorset’s university perhaps may not form an altogether routine part of the Associate Professor of Archaeology’s daily life.
‘I haven’t been on the campus for months,’ he announces as he shakes my hand. ‘I only got back from Stockholm last night; we have been meeting the research staff of the Vasa to talk about our wreck’, he says referring by name to the 17th century flagship of the Swedish navy which sank in 1628, a mile into her maiden voyage. Salvaged virtually intact in the late 1950s, the Vasa – now a major museum in Stockholm – remains a benchmark for maritime historical research into that era.
‘Our wreck’, Dave says, ‘is fast becoming another key part in the jigsaw of understanding the life and lore of maritime trading nations nearly five hundred years ago.’ He adds, with some pride, ‘it’s a real Dorset story. There are only a handful of wrecks of such quality in the world and we have one right on our doorstep.’

The wreck's precise position shown on a chart

The wreck’s precise position shown on a chart

Described as possibly the most significant shipwreck to be discovered since the Mary Rose, the Swash Channel Wreck as it is more usually known, consists of virtually the entire port side of a significant merchantman of Dutch origin that was heavily armed and adorned with rich carvings. The wreck lies in less than six metres of water on the edge of the main shipping channel at the end of the Hook Sands off Sandbanks. It is believed she may have been built for the spice trade; remarkably, despite the vessel’s grandeur, no records can be found as to the ship’s name, her owners or demise save dating of timbers which indicate she was built with trees from the Dutch – German borders, about the same time as the Vasa and, apart from having one deck fewer, was of similar size and construction to her 1200 tonne, 230 foot long Swedish counterpart that had a crew of 145 and carried over 1200 square feet of sail. Lack of wear on the Swash wreck’s carvings indicate that she too spent only a short time above the waves.
‘Quite possibly, the vessel was lost on her maiden voyage or not long after’, Dave remarked, ‘as she made her way down the Channel perhaps. Tales of ships being ten miles off course in a heavy sea at the dead of night are legion in those days and before you know it she got into difficulty and the rest, as they say, is history.’
But the lack of records, anywhere, is puzzling for a ship of such size and prominence. Dave told me how, centuries ago, ships were not as valuable a commodity as they are today.
‘You could pay for a vessel on the back of one journey and if she was lost during the Civil War, when the administration fell apart, it is quite possible no record would have been made of the loss whatsoever’. But England’s struggle between Cavalier and Roundhead would have been too late given the good condition of the vessel and the theory she was lost soon after launch which would reasonably be somewhere in the mid-1630s; nonetheless the lack of a report anywhere at all is remarkable. The modern day equivalent of a super tanker going down literally yards off shore and not a single note surviving the incident is inconceivable.
The irony, Dave said, was that the ‘first time’ the Swash Wreck was discovered was in 1990 when a Dutch dredger working on the shipping channel brought up some timbers and cannon – the finds ending up in Poole Museum.

The unmistakable moustachioed figure of the Swash Channel wreck's rudder being raised

The unmistakable moustachioed figure of the Swash Channel wreck’s rudder being raised

In the Professor’s experience, however, 1990 was definitely not the first time the wreck was discovered: ‘1990 was just the first time she revealed herself us. Almost certainly she was heavily salvaged when she foundered’, he says, showing slides of enormous slatted rafts kept afloat with barrels that would have been positioned over the submersed hull of the ship.
Grapple irons would have then been lowered into the decking and the rising tide would have ripped the decks out like a cork from a bottle. The structure would have opened out like a chocolate orange removed from its wrapper, which explains why we are left with the port side, as that sank to the sea bed, largely unrecoverable in those days. The finds – including piles of rigging, carvings, gun carriages, cannon, gun and balls, navigational equipment, cooking utensils, other ships tools, a lot of odds and ends, even more shoes and the barrels that contained the ship’s store of salt beef. But this incredible range of items, over twelve hundred in fact, are all consistent with this theory as this is the sort of stuff that tends to be left behind when someone has cherry picked the contents already. But one of the most significant discoveries that missed the original salvage team’s eye was the eight-metre rudder. It took us seven days to prepare the five tonne piece for lifting’, he said grabbing a photo, ‘not only is it magnificent, but it is quite unique’, Dave adds with evident pride looking upon an enormous moustachioed head carved on the top of the giant block of wood; its vacant eyes staring to some far off point lost in the sands of history.

Just some of the finds that have been brought up from the Swash Channel Wreck

Just some of the finds that have been brought up from the Swash Channel Wreck

‘But the Swash Wreck is of further importance’, Dave continues, ‘because the ship, believed to have been commissioned for the valuable spice trade, is thought to have been involved in the beginnings of internationalisation – the earliest days of global trading – and, as such, may hold the secrets to the economic, social and political environment of the time. But what is also of particular interest is that she also tells us the nitty gritty of 17th-century ship assembly: intricate detail which is all too often only handed down by word of mouth and lost as technology moves on. So from our finds, we can now work out the entire build process, from tree selection, to scaffold construction’.
The vessel was uncovered again in 2004 when Wessex Archaeology undertook to investigate the wreck more formally leading to a reappraisal of the site’s importance and size. This resulted in the remains being designated an Historic Wreck a year later which, the professor went on, gives it almost the same status as Stonehenge.
Bournemouth University, internationally recognised for its expertise in certain specialised areas of applied sciences, including forensic and marine archaeology, regularly undertakes research and conservation projects of national importance. Thus in 2006, English Heritage approached the University’s Archaeology Department to work on the conservation of the wreck following Wessex Archaeology’s reappraisal of the site.
The Archaeology Department were asked to coordinate a five year monitoring plan as part of its marine archaeology course. It quickly became apparent that the wreck was becoming exposed – partly due to weather and increased storms – as the protective mantle of centuries of Poole Bay sand and mud were washing away to reveal more than 40 metres of the hull. After extensive surveying and recovery of artefacts, involving the use of barges, tugs, floating docks, divers and expensive plant to recover finds and work on securing the site, the wreck has now been reburied under fifty tons of protective sandbags on top of which spoil dredged from the Swash Channel will also be dumped for added protection.

The unmistakable figure of Associate Professor Dave Parham out of his normal environment, but in his office at Bournemouth University

The unmistakable figure of Associate Professor Dave Parham out of his normal environment, but in his office at Bournemouth University

‘This has been quite an extensive project’, Dave told me, ‘but to date has only cost £960,000 which is little when you consider this was over a five-year period and combine that figure with the resources that have been used so far, not just in manpower terms but equipment, materiel and the meticulous logging and conservation of finds too. But I doubt our wreck will be raised to become Poole’s equivalent of the Mary Rose. The cost of salvage could be nearer £12 million… then a large museum would need to be built and the economics of such an undertaking are not only huge but can be incredibly risky too. The reality is,’ he said growing reflective, ‘we only have [the equivalent of] a quarter of the Vasa’s hull and I am not sure that to the general public that all important “wow” factor to draw the crowds in would be there.’
The finds and story of Poole’s mystery wreck will however form part of an extensive display in due course in the town museum (appropriately at the Quay end of the high street), but not in the immediate future until finds are fully cleaned and preserved for future generations to marvel at.

Poole Museum ( 4 High Street, Poole, Dorset BH15 1BW Tel 01202 262 500 No admission charge. Open from 10am – 5pm Mon – Sat and 12 noon to 5pm on Sundays.

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