Archaeology in rubber suits

March 31, 2000

A shipwrecked pirate chaser off Mull has given an insight into another age. Olga Wojtas reports.

At the age of 60, Colin Martin, reader in maritime archaeology at St Andrews University's school of history, thought his diving days were over almost a decade ago. Co-author with leading historian Geoffrey Parker of The Spanish Armada, he had been prominent in making underwater discoveries from the Armada wrecks, but felt once he reached his 50s that the time had come to stay on land. "I was getting on a bit. It's hard work, cold and miserable."

But then the university's archaeological diving unit (ADU) was contacted by naval diving instructor John Dadd, who had discovered a historic shipwreck off the coast of Mull. The wreck had been surrounded by silt, encapsulating a lot of fragile material, but the site had been destabilised, perhaps by a shift of the seabed, and lighter items were being washed away in the currents. Historic Scotland urged the ADU to record the position of items under threat and recover those most at risk.

"It was suggested that I might like to get involved for no better reason than that nobody else obvious was around," says Dr Martin. "So I was got off the shelf, dusted down and chucked in the water."

Since 1992, Dr Martin has led a small team working on the excavation and conservation of the wreck, which lies under 12 metres of water near Duart Castle, home of the chiefs of Clan Maclean. This proved to be one of the clues to identifying the wreck. "What we are doing is mainstream archaeology, except at the bottom of the sea," Dr Martin says. "We have to dress up in funny rubber suits and engage in professional diving procedures, but diving is only a vehicle by which we go to our place of research."

The team found a number of coins, the latest dated 1646, as well as clay pipes, which stylistically fitted the mid 16th century, and parts of a brass pistol made by an Edinburgh company that went out of business in 1662.

"It gives you a bracket when you can start looking at historical studies, and we found a little incident at the fag-end of Cromwell's war against Scotland in 1653. A task force was sent to sort out Clan Maclean, but the Macleans very prudently disappeared into the hills, a storm blew up and three of the vessels were wrecked."

Two were small merchant ships, but the St Andrews team discovered that the wreck was The Swan, an innovative anti-piracy warship built for Charles I in 1641. About 25 metres long, and weighing some 200 tonnes, she would normally have carried about 40 people, but may have been carrying more as a troop transporter. A contemporary manual urged that such ships, which had to be capable of outsailing pirates, should not be overloaded with useless decoration. The captain's cabin should not have unnecessary heavy panelling because this would stiffen the whole structure. But Dr Martin has found ornate regal carving and panelling in the wreck, showing that The Swan was fitted lavishly to reflect Charles's status.

"Charles I saw his ships as examples of his power, and they were covered with decoration like wedding cakes. His mega-folly was a ship called Sovereign of the Seas, the biggest ship ever to be launched, but the historical records don't tell us our tiny little ship had the same excesses," Dr Martin says.

"The extra weight and stiffness may have affected its efficiency as a good fighting ship, which may explain its eventual downfall."

A ship is a particularly fascinating find for archaeologists, because it is a self-contained society, in effect a floating village. "So much that survives today from the 17th century is very unrepresentative, because it's all the nice stuff that has been kept, the family heirlooms. What we get from this is all the everyday stuff that people were actually using, utensils, clothing, accoutrements. The great beauty of a shipwreck is that it's one frozen moment in time."

Another advantage of a maritime site is that it preserves organic material such as leather, rope and textiles that would generally not survive on land. It is crucial to keep the materials wet while they are being recovered, and more fragile objects have to be bandaged to stretchers before removal. After excavation, they are photographed and catalogued before being taken to the National Museum of Scotland's laboratories in Edinburgh.

The St Andrews team hopes the recovered artefacts will eventually form part of an exhibition dedicated to The Swan. The researchers have come across occasional human bones, but recently found a large number they suspected might belong to one person, confirmed by a bone specialist's preliminary investigations.

A shipwreck tends to produce the remains of a sector of society that is not found in any other context - fit young men, says Dr Martin. "In a cemetery, you get the ill and old, so this is another window into the past. These bones are of an individual between 23 and 25. When he was young, under Charles I, he didn't fare very well, and he was undernourished and had rickets and bow legs," he says.

"But his whole upper body is almost like King Kong's, exceptionally well developed. To sustain that level of work, he's very well nourished. The condition of the bones indicates a relatively well-balanced diet, perhaps reflecting the attention paid by the Commonwealth Navy to the well-being of its men. We're extracting a great deal of information not just from the finds themselves, but from their associations and contexts."

The St Andrews project's findings will feature on Cromwell's Forgotten Wreck, a BBC2 documentary, on April 3.

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