Maritime archaeology has its roots in a curiosity about the lives of seafaring communities. The process of archaeological investigation is similar to detective work. All physical remains have the potential to provide a vital clue to understanding how the Welsh people have interacted with the sea in the past.
Archaeology’s complementary disciplines are history, which is the study of all that is remembered of the past as preserved in written records and, and ethnography, where an observer immerses themselves in the every-day life of a social group who use similar tools, techniques and materials to undertake tasks similar to those undertaken by our ancestors. For example, the study of contemporary fishing or boatbuilding practices can provide a valuable insight into past practices.
Over the past thirty years maritime archaeology has evolved from a series of discoveries into a specialist discipline which recognises the fragility of underwater sites and the need to conserve, protect and manage them.
Several notable historical studies of Wales’ maritime heritage were written before any systematic underwater archaeological investigations were undertaken (e.g. the several works by authors such as Emrys Hughes and Aled Eames).
One of the earliest underwater projects concerned the site of sloop, Lovely (NPRN 240352), which was found in 1969 by members of the Gwynedd British Sub-Aqua Club. Only two years later the problems caused by rival groups claiming the rights to the wreck of the Royal Yacht Mary contributed to the need to pass the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973. The other Welsh Designated Historic Wrecks dating from the early years are the Pwll Fanog slate wreck discovered in 1976 and the Talybont or Bronze Bell wreck found in 1978.
During the 1970s significant finds were also made in inland waters. For example, in 1977 a team of commercial divers located a pile of slates neatly stacked on the bottom of Lake Padarn whilst undertaking work for the Electricity Generating Board. The 1354 slates comprised the cargo of a small 6 metre long flat-bottomed barge, found to be well preserved under the slate mound (NPRN 240683). The National Museum Wales raised the vessel, and further research has identified a link to the transportation of slates from Dinorwic quarry (circa 1788 – 1824).
In the 1990s significant finds were made both offshore and in the intertidal areas. In 1994 a wooden post was seen projecting from the mud on the Severn foreshore at Magor Pill. A Cadw-funded preliminary survey by the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust found 7 metres of a vessel dating to the thirteenth century. In 1995 a full examination was carried out. The vessel was revealed to clinker-built and to consist of the forward section of a 15-20 metres long boat. The ship’s cargo comprised a mound of iron ore piled onto a hazel hurdle. The wreck was lifted intact and is now cared for by the National Museum Wales.
In 2002, a fifteenth century vessel was found within a coffer dam installed to facilitate the digging of the orchestra pit for the new Arts Centre at Newport. The area inside the coffer dam included part of an old stone quay recorded on an eighteenth century map of monastic land holdings. The find consisted of the lower part of the hull, one side of which has been truncated at about 2 metres above keel level and the other side which has collapsed outwards and extended to a distance of about 4 metres above the keel. Initially dubbed the Welsh Mary Rose, the Newport Ship has been described as a cross between a caravel and a Viking longship. It was in excess of 25 metres in length and the hull remains largely intact. Finds include leather shoes, textiles such as sail cloth and woollen clothing, rope and blocks, and Portugese pottery . The partial skeleton of a man was also recovered from underneath the ship and has been dated to the Iron Age.
In more recent years the interests of maritime archaeologists have extended from shipwrecks to include changing coastlines. This has happened as a result of recognising that human history in the British Isles extends back some 700,000 years and that, in between ice ages, there have been warmer periods when the seabed would have been dry land and probably inhabited. Our understanding of the potential of these submerged landscapes has grown as evidence has become exposed in present intertidal areas. Amongst the most significant, are the footprints of children dating to some 8,000 years ago have been found preserved in the intertidal mud of the Severn estuary. There are also the so-called submerged forests which occur on several parts of the Welsh coast. These are usually deposits of peat, soil, and tree remains. They have been located at Criccieth near Portmadoc, Llanaber, Barmouth, Borth and at Ynyslas. All these deposits appear to be post- glacial coastal lagoons and estuary peats which have been flooded by the rising sea level.
Our understanding of the complexity and potential of archaeological sites underwater is developing as systematic recording is being undertaken at national and local level. Inventories, such as the National Monuments Record of Wales and local Historic Environment Record maintained by the Welsh Archaeological Trust, serve two main functions:
To be fully effective fulfilling these two functions, an inventory needs an accurate position for the site, an assessment of its age and of the current state of preservation, plus any known historical associations or aspects of the site which may make it particularly important.
At present time, shipwrecks and downed aircraft comprise most of the records within Wales’ inventories. These can be divided into two types: ‘located wrecks’ where a site has been identified on the seabed and references to ‘casualties’, which provide an indication of the potential of any area of seabed or coast to contain archaeological remains. Located wrecks comprise approximately a quarter of the total number of records. However, the legacy of centuries of seafaring around the Welsh Coast is a wealth of shipwreck stories of disaster, tragedy and heroism. Tempestuous weather might swamp a vessel. Sinking could be caused by structural leaks. When it was clear that a ship could not survive a captain would often try to run it onto an open beach in the hope of saving the crew and cargo. Ships faced even greater hazards in submerged reefs, such as the Smalls and the Skerries. Prevailing winds and the shape of the Welsh coast also presented great hazards to sailing ships . Fro example, when a master could not tack clear of the Lleyn peninsula, ships would often be driven ashore at the apply-named Port Neigwl (Hell’s Mouth). Entering harbours was a particularly dangerous time; masters often needed the know-how of local pilots to negotiate narrow or twisting channels. Even ships at anchor were not safe. A change in wind direction and an increase in sea state could cause an anchor to drag or anchor cables to part, placing the ship and all on board in danger.
There are recorded shipping losses during naval battles, for example the naval engagement between the forces of Owain Gwynedd, Prince of North Wales, and King Henry II's combined naval force of English, Irish and Danish vessels off Tal-y-foel, Menai Straits, in AD1157.
Twentieth century wartime losses include both Royal Naval and German submarines, motor gunboats, landing craft, minesweepers, US Liberty Ships and over 100 vessels from the merchant navy and inshore fishing fleet. Many were indirectly caused by enemy action, such as a ship striking floating mine.
Working in Partnership
The investigation and recording of underwater sites in Wales is being undertaking by a range of government and non-government organisations, as well as dedicated, local people.
Within this network the RCAHMW forms the national repository of archaeological information supported by the Welsh Assembly Government through Cadw. The RCAHMW is charged with the task of extending the spatial coverage of the National Monuments Record of Wales to offshore areas, working with other government bodies such as the UK Hydrographic Office and other maritime stakeholders and sea-users. The RCAHMW works in partnership with the Receiver of Wreck to ensure that information with regard to reported wreck of archaeological importance is incorporated in the NMRW. Reports of finds from marine aggregate areas made by members of the British Marine Aggregates Producers Association (BMAPA) in Welsh waters are also reported to the RCAHMW via the BMAPA/English Heritage Protocol Implementation Service, also those from the Offshore Renewables Protocol For Reporting Archaeological Discoveries.
The RCAHMW also maintains relationships with is sister bodies in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Irish Republic and the Isle of Man to continually review and improve inventory recording standards.
The RCAHMW works closely with Cadw’s team of Ancient Monuments Inspectors to provide information to assist with tasks associated with statutory protection and development control casework.