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Tudor Shipwreck Discovered in Southeastern England

Archaeologists are now excavating a recently-discovered shipwreck found in southeastern England, which is believed to date from the Tudor-era.

Volunteers showing the outline of the newly discovered Tankerton wreck near Whitstable, North Kent Photo © Historic England

The remains of the ship were first found in 2017 by a group of volunteers from a local history and archaeology society at Tankerton Beach in Kent. The wreck is exposed in mudflats when the tide is low.

Mark Harrison, Director of Timescapes, the group which made the discovery, explained “Our group of volunteers was looking for exploded World War II pillboxes along the Kent coast. Adjacent to a lump of exploded concrete, we were amazed to see the timbers of a ship appearing out of the sand. We reported the find to Historic England and are pleased that what turned out to be a medieval wreck has been given protection and that this excavation could tell us more about its story.”

Historic England commissioned Wessex Archaeology, assisted by volunteers from Timescapes to survey the exposed remains which measure 12.14m long x 5m wide. Two trenches that were excavated revealed the presence of well-preserved hull timbers from the keel up to the turn of the bilge, where the bottom of the ship curves to meet the vertical sides.

Excavating the Tankerton Wreck – Photo © Historic England

Dendrochronological sampling has revealed that one oak plank is of southern British woodland origin with a felling date from the year 1531. Three other oak samples were tentatively dated to the 16th century, with elm, larch and beech timbers. The construction of the hull suggests that the ship is a late 16th century, early 17th century carvel-built single-masted merchant ship of 100-200 tons.

The proximity of the wreck to a well-known copperas works provides some context for the wreck. Copperas, also known as green vitriol – hydrated ferrous sulphate, was largely used in the textile industry as a dye fixative and in the manufacture of ink. Copperas works are known at Whitstable from 1565 and it is possible that the Tankerton Beach wreck was engaged in transporting copperas before being abandoned at the coast edge in an area of what was once tidal salt marsh.

The archaeologists hope to find personal effects and cargo in the hull. Toby Gane, Project Manager from Wessex Archaeology, added “This is a rare opportunity to investigate the remains of an early vessel. We know from our earlier work that this vessel has an interesting mix of construction features and we have been finding out more about it during this excavation.”

The UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has scheduled this wreck and another in Camber Sands on the advice of Historic England, giving them protection.

The Tankerton wreck has been given protection because it is the only known surviving Medieval shipwreck in south-east England. It gives us evidence of Tudor/early Stuart shipbuilding techniques and the late Medieval copperas industry along the north Kent coast.

The other recently discovered ship dates from the 18th or 19th century, and maybe the Avon, which was reported to have ‘stranded and drifted alongshore to the east of Rye Harbour and received considerable damage’ in August 1852.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said in statement: “These two very different ships are equally fascinating and will shed light on our maritime past. Many of the ships that Historic England protects are accessible only to divers but when the sands shift and the tide is right, visitors to these beaches in Kent and Sussex can catch a glimpse of these incredible wrecks. I’m delighted that volunteers are so involved in discovery, which is one of the great gifts of the historic environment.”

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