Heritage: Race to save mystery wreck from shipworm

Maev Kennedy

The Guardian,

Wednesday July 2, 2008


In the depths of Poole harbour there is a magnificent ship in serious trouble. The vessel, lying off the Dorset coast, sank almost 400 years ago but its surviving timbers are now being devoured by Mediterranean shipworms flourishing in the warmer British waters.


Archaeologists from Bournemouth University have recovered from the wreck a spectacular merman, which was part of the decorative carving from the stern. Divers plan to descend again to lift the 8.5-metre (28ft) rudder.


The ship, and the fate of hundreds of souls on board, is a mystery.


"From the quality of the carving, this was no coal boat," said Dave Parham, a senior lecturer, and diver, at the college's maritime archaeology department. "Depending on whether she was a warship or merchant vessel carrying passengers, there could well have been up to 400 people on board. Even if they all died and were washed up on the beach, somebody would have claimed salvage rights and somebody would have had to bury the bodies."


He added: "You'd expect to find some folk memory of that big ship with all the bodies and all the good expensive booty that came in on the tide."


Near the ship, timbers up to 40 metres long lie on the seabed, and the rudder suggests the vessel had the height of a three-storey house. But a trawl through archives and local history sources has turned up nothing matching what would have been a disastrous loss for the ship's owner.


The timbers date to around 1620, and the style of the carving - there is probably a matching mermaid still to be found, and a helmeted head has also been spotted in the silt - suggests the ship was built somewhere in north-west Europe, possibly the Netherlands or Scandinavia. It had weapons: six cannon have been found, and the number of gun ports suggests many more are buried.


Small personal possessions recovered include a clay pipe, pottery, a copper saucepan and small bell.


The carving slightly resembles that of one of the most ornate shipwrecks ever discovered, the Swedish Vasa, whose lavish ormamentation was partly blamed for top-heaviness that led to the boat sinking like a stone.


The wreck has been designated as being of national importance, and has been monitored by Bournemouth University for the past two years. It escaped treasure hunters, being in the harbour's main, closely monitored, shipping lane. But as the sandbanks shifted and timbers began to rise from the protective layers of silt, the shipworms got to work and rescue archaeology became urgent.


The mystery ship will appear for the first time on the new comprehensive register of heritage at risk, to be published next week by English Heritage.


The evidence of the mollusc attack on the wreck may spell disaster for other ships, as well as jetty timber pilings, wharves and bridges.


In a study commissioned by English Heritage, Paola Palma, a marine archaeologist, found that the animals destroying the details of the carving were blacktip shipworm - or Lyrodus pedicellatus, a warm-water species which grows up to two metres and which was previously unknown in British waters.


Unlike the usual shipworm for this region, which bores only in the breeding season then swims away, the blacktip bores continuously throughout the year and remains in the same spot until the timbers completely disintegrate.



Jacobean 'Titanic' discovered by archaeologists

By Graham Tibbetts

Last Updated: 6:43PM BST 01/07/2008


The wreck of a richly-jewelled 17th century ship has been discovered in the English Channel.


Marine archaeologists who explored the 600-ton vessel off Dorset believe it may have been as luxurious in its day as the Titanic.


Among the treasures they have retrieved is a statue of a merman whose eye sockets would have held precious stones.


The 4.5ft wooden figure was one of a number of statues that would have adorned the stern of the vessel.


At 130ft long, the oak-timbered ship would have been one of the largest of its kind on the seas when it sank in around 1620.


Its identity is not known but it is likely to be British or Dutch.


The wreck was found half a mile from the Sandbanks peninsula during recent dredging work of Poole harbour.


Marine archaeologists have carried out a series of dives on the vessel, which lies in 23ft of water.


They have found seven iron cannon and indications of barrels of cargo, as well as pottery fragments, a copper skillet and a silver spoon.


It is unclear whether it was a warship or cargo vessel.


The study is being led by David Parham, who is preserving the merman statue in a paddling pool of fresh water at his home.


"It would have been a very big vessel for its day. The statue was on the outer ship, probably the stern, staring out and we believe it was part of a collection rather than an individual piece," said Mr Parham, a senior lecturer in marine archaeology at Bournemouth University.


"The whole vessel would have been a spectacular work or art.


"It was a sign of prestige and wealth."


He added: "It would not have been a million miles from a 17th century version of the Titanic, although the Titanic was ornate for the passengers and not for those on the outside."


There are no maritime records of the sinking and experts are unsure how the three-masted ship came to founder.


There was a naval battle off Portland at about the same time and one theory is that it sank in sheltered waters after being hit. Britain was at war with the Spanish, French and Dutch at the time, Mr Parham said.


X-rays of the statue of the merman have revealed its lower half is being eaten away by boreworms that are usually found in the Mediterranean.


This is possible evidence of global warming and is an ominous sign for similar wrecks still lying off England's south coast.


The statue has been declared to the Receiver of Wreck which has one year to trace its owner. After that it becomes property of the Crown and it is hoped it will then be given to the Poole Museum.



Archaeologists discover Britain's first 'shopping centre' in Roman dig

Last updated at 3:14 PM on 02nd July 2008


One of Britain's very first shopping centres has been unearthed - a high street that was fashionable 1,800 years ago when togas were still in vogue.


A row of narrow shop buildings uncovered by archaeologists shows that the Romans in Britain had their very own well-heeled fashionistas.


The shop buildings used by the stylish Romans in ancient Britain were uncovered by archaeologists in fields at Monmouthshire, South Wales.


The site, now occupied only by the rural village of Caerwent near Newport, was formerly Venta Silurum - one of 15 major towns in Britain at the time.


Crucially for archaeologist, unlike most of these 15 towns Venta Silurum did not stay important. Instead it declined - and so escaped the demolition, rebuilding and enlargement that have obliterated early remains elsewhere over the centuries.


Archaeologists say the surviving evidence show it was affluent and fashionable in Roman times, with wealthy villas in the suburbs.


A villa with painted walls and mosaic floors among the other finds also points to the town being home to wealthy Romans in the Third Century AD, when Venta Silurum was booming.


Archaeologist Tom Scott described the 44-acre site as 'beautifully preserved'.


He said: 'Discovering the shop buildings and the villa, it seems as if people lived here in some style.


'The site appealed to us as it is one of the best preserved Roman towns in the UK.


'This was a golden opportunity for us to find out more about it.'


A team of 50 worked on the excavation at the Roman site including members of Wessex Archaeology and volunteers from the local Chepstow Archaeology Society.


Seven trenches were dug at three different locations to uncover more about previously unexcavated parts of the town.


Long thin buildings were also found in several places - believed to be shop buildings on the high street.


Key finds included a penknife hilt of bone depicting two gladiators fighting.


Other artefacts uncovered included coins, glass, ceramics, human and animal bones, lead patches used for repairing, and bits of mosaic.


Mr Scott said: 'This type of town was a "civitas capital" - a civilian town and centre of local Roman government - one of around 15 in the UK.


'Most of these had later towns built on top so you can't see the town walls, but Caerwent is beautifully preserved.'


Archaeologist Jacqueline McKinley said: 'The large villa we found suggests this was a posh part of town.


'We also found animal bones on the site which suggests that at least one of the high street shops was a butchers.


'It looks as if the animal bones belonged to joints of meat that would have been displayed in the shop window.


'It was a very successful dig and filled in some gaps in our knowledge of the ancient town.'



Experts return to 'power centre'

By Steven McKenzie

Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website


Archaeologists are to return to an Iron Age "power centre" to further investigate the influence of the Romans on the north of Scotland.


Dr Fraser Hunter, of the National Museums of Scotland, will lead the dig at Birnie, near Elgin, next month.


Roman coin hordes have previously been found in the area.


Dr Hunter said he hoped the work would further uncover clues to an Iron Age community there and the emergence of ancient people known as the Picts.


The archaeologists will look at a number of key target sites in what will be the final phase of excavations at Birnie.


Dr Hunter, principal curator of Roman archaeology, said it had been a "power centre" going back 3,000 years.


He said: "Around the Roman Iron Age it really flourished and was a place with Roman connections."


He said: "The site shows the influence of Rome beyond the edge of the empire."


The coins were thought to have been buried as a religious offering.


Dr Hunter said: "A series of strange things have also been found recently.


"One was an intact decorative pot buried upside down and a whet stone, a lovely rectangular object hardly used and not the kind of thing that would be have been discarded.


"We think these were buried as sacrifices as offerings to the gods."


Evidence of Roman influence outside the boundaries of the empire have been found across northern Scotland.


Last July, the BBC Scotland news website told how ancient coins were found on a beach in the Western Isles.


Archaeologists believed the pieces of copper alloy date from the middle of the 4th Century.


They were found in a sand dune, but the location in the Uists has been kept secret to protect the site.



Antonine Wall set to take centre stage

The Roman wall that Hadrian didn’t build doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it’s poised to become a World Heritage Site

From The Sunday Times

July 6, 2008

Richard Wilson


It begins in Old Kilpatrick, on the River Clyde, and ends in Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth. It runs inconspicuously by cemeteries, schools and rows of shops, along streets where pedestrians walk, probably unknowingly, along its spine.


In some places railway tracks and roads cross it, in others the trains and traffic race alongside. The Antonine Wall is Scottish history’s forgotten legacy.


Yet when members of Unesco’s World Heritage Committee meet in Quebec tomorrow, the wall — built by the Romans in AD142 — will be on their agenda. Having applied for World Heritage Site status, it is on the verge of being recognised as a landmark to be ranked alongside the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian pyramids.


In the haughty Glasgow suburb of Bearsden, through which the Antonine Wall passes, householders might soon be able to lean over their privet hedges and compare their own pieces of World Heritage land. In an area boasting street names that include Roman Road (which follows the route of Military Way, the road that ran parallel to the wall), Roman Court and Antonine Road, residents have found Roman coins while tending to their shrubs.


“A lot of it runs through people’s gardens and the people of Bearsden are really rather pleased that they’ve got it,” says David Breeze, head of special heritage projects at Historic Scotland, which led the nomination bid.


At nearly 40 miles long, the wall is half the length of, and 20 years younger than, Hadrian’s Wall, the barrier the Romans erected 80 miles south in Northumberland, which was named a World Heritage Site in 1987. If granted similar status, the Antonine Wall will combine with Hadrian’s Wall and part of the Upper German and Raetian border to be jointly considered frontiers of the Roman empire as a transnational World Heritage Site.


The Antonine Wall has long suffered in comparison with its English neighbour. Where the stone construction of Hadrian’s Wall still marches grimly across the countryside, interspersed with forts, milecastles, temples and turrets, the original Antonine Wall consisted of turf ramparts built on a stone base. One still resembles a kind of hewn statement of intent, while the other is now a series of grassy hillocks, rueful mounds that can often appear natural to the untrained eye. “The Antonine Wall has a strange relationship to the Scottish historical psyche,” says Breeze. “It’s not got into the soul. That may be down to the fact that Scottish history wasn’t properly taught in schools. Or is it because it’s not as visibly exciting? It suffers because it’s not built in stone, so it’s not so obvious.”


In theory, the Antonine Wall casts a bold shadow. Its 10ft-high turf walls looked down on a ditch 12ft deep and 40ft wide, recent excavations revealing that the areas between the base of the wall and the trench were potted with holes that may have contained pointed wooden stakes. There was a series of forts dotted along the wall, which would have housed up to 7,000 Roman soldiers.


The idea that both walls acted as barricades against marauding, kilted and growling Scots is popular, yet might also be flawed. For one, the walls were too narrow for soldiers to fight from and the Roman legionnaires were equipped to battle on the ground rather than from a height.


Breeze believes the walls were created to protect territory rather than for military defence. “It’s like the ones the Israelis are building, or the Berlin Wall,” he says. “The Romans were similar to us in some ways. They were very regulatory, including \ how people came into the empire, so they were modern in that respect.


“It’s not necessarily the political boundary, it’s just the most convenient line — there were forts north of the Antonine Wall. Yet there’s an element of Scotland that wants to believe that they stopped the Romans conquering the whole country.”


The Antonine Wall was, most likely, the result of political manoeuvring rather than military posturing. When the Emperor Hadrian died in AD138, he was succeeded by Antoninus Pius, a senator who was an experienced administrator but had no military background. It is thought that to emphasise his credentials, he sought to make a grand gesture and so changed the frontier of the empire in Britain, moving it 80 miles north and commissioning the construction of the wall that bears his name.


Sections of the turf ramparts are visible in Bar Hill, Croy Hill, Westerwood, Castlecary and Watling Lodge across the central belt. Remains of forts are identifiable in Bearsden, Bar Hill and Rough Castle, while the Roman bathhouse that Breeze discovered and excavated in Bearsden allows a unique insight into the eating habits of Roman soldiers.


“We found the sewage which flowed out of the fort latrine,” he smiles. “\ sterols survive in the soil, and from this we were able to work out that the soldiers had a mainly vegetarian diet. That had never been done before and has never been replicated.”


The Romans abandoned the Antonine Wall after only 20 years, retreating south to Hadrian’s Wall. Breeze believes this was due to circumstances elsewhere in the empire demanding a redeployment of troops, rather than as a response to doughty, fighting Scots.



If it becomes the fifth World Heritage Site in Scotland — along with New Lanark, the old and new towns of Edinburgh, the heart of neolithic Orkney and St Kilda — there is hope at Historic Scotland that the profile of the Antonine Wall will be raised.


The wall remains Scotland’s largest historic monument and almost two-thirds of it is intact in some form. Whether it lies in somebody’s garden or across a field, it may have far-reaching effects, says Breeze, adding:


“We can use it to illustrate modern citizenship, history and, ultimately, Scotland’s place in the world.”



Syrian dig reveals bizarre sacrificial ceremony of ancient acrobat


Washington, July 3 : An archaeological dig in northeastern Syria has pointed to a bizarre sacrificial ceremony, with the revelation of the remains of man, who may have been an acrobat at around 2300 B.C., along with remains of several rare horse-like animals.


According to a report by Discovery News, gory evidence of the entertainer's death, along with the remains of several rare horse-like animals, which appear to have been sacrificed as well, was found in the remains of a building at a site called Tell Brak, which was once the ancient city of Nagar.


The findings suggest that some ancient cultures may have sacrificed well-known public figures, as well as animals of great personal and monetary worth.


Joan Oates, from Cambridge University's McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, who is also the lead author of the paper, and her colleagues were struck by the arrangement of three human bodies in the reception and main office portion of the ancient building.


They describe the skeletal layout as "unusual, indeed strange."


One skeleton belonged to the acrobat, while another could have been the driver of a cart pulled by the animals. The third individual remains unidentified.


"It's the skeletons of the humans that are strange because they were not 'buried' in the usual sense of below ground level, and the heads were missing," said Oates.


"They were simply lying on a surface, on which the outline of the body itself was still visible - that is, they were not buried, but the room was rapidly filled in after their deposition," she added.


Fine silver jewellery, the remains of a dog along with its water bowl, and other animal remains were also found in the building.


The researchers believe that the acrobat was an entertainer known as a hub, or hub ki, words associated with the idea of "always jumping about." Ancient seals depict such individuals with spiky hair and performing contortionist-type tricks.


Oates and her colleagues identified the person as being such an ancient acrobat because his or her knee, tibia, arm and foot bones indicate the person was physically active, having executed jumps and turns "in a very disciplined way with feet pointed downwards during leaps, much as can be seen in some modern dancers."


The scientists compared the skeleton with the anatomy of a modern dancer and found direct similarities.


According to scientists, it's likely that the acrobat participated in some kind of ritualistic performance that culminated in his or her own death by beheading.


Aside from bringing this dramatic moment of early history back to life, the findings could reveal information about culture in what may have been the world's oldest city.



Ancient royal burial ground found in Egypt: report

Sat Jul 5, 1:21 PM ET


CAIRO (AFP) - Archaeologists have uncovered ancient wooden coffins in what appears to be a royal burial ground near the necropolis of Abydos in southern Egypt, the state-run MENA news agency reported on Saturday.


The agency said that the discovery, made by a team from the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities, could be dated back to the Old Kingdom (3,000 B.C.) -- the golden age of pyramid building in ancient times.


The team "has found what could be a royal complex of 13 tombs of different shapes and sizes that could have belonged to high officials from that period or people who contributed to building these tombs," MENA said.


The agency said that human bones were found inside the coffins, although it did not specify how many coffins were discovered.


Objects made out of ivory similar to pieces used for playing chess were also found. MENA said only one other similar board game has been found in Egypt and that was among the fabled treasures of the legendary boy king Tutankhamun.


The discovery of Tutankhamun's intact tomb by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 near Luxor in southern Egypt caused an international sensation because of the value and quality of its contents.



Researchers open secret cave under Mexican pyramid

By Miguel Angel Gutierrez Thu Jul 3, 12:22 PM ET


MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Archeologists are opening a cave sealed for more than 30 years deep beneath a Mexican pyramid to look for clues about the mysterious collapse of one of ancient civilization's largest cities.


The soaring Teotihuacan stone pyramids, now a major tourist site about an hour outside Mexico City, were discovered by the ancient Aztecs around 1500 AD, not long before the arrival of Spanish explorers to Mexico.


But little is known about the civilization that built the immense city, with its ceremonial architecture and geometric temples, and then torched and abandoned it around 700 AD.


Archeologists are now revisiting a cave system that is buried 20 feet beneath the towering Pyramid of the Sun and extends into a tunnel stretching for some 295 feet (90 meters) with a height of 8 feet.


They say new excavations begun this month could be the key to unlocking information about the sacred rituals of the people who inhabited the city, later dubbed "The Place Where Men Become Gods" by the Aztecs who believed it was a divine site.


"We think it had a ritual purpose. Offerings were placed at the very end of the tunnel as part of the pyramid's construction process," Mexican archeologist Alejandro Sarabia told Reuters.


"We want to find out why the Teotihuacan people sealed it and when," he said.


Sarabia said the tunnel was first discovered in the early 1970s but it was closed soon afterward, and most of the information about it was lost when the archeologist who found it died.


Teotihuacan is Mexico's oldest major archeological site and during its heyday in 500 AD, the city was home to some 200,000 people, rivaling the size of ancient Rome at that time, according to archeologists.


Today, it is surrounded by encroaching slums spilling over from the outskirts of Mexico City, but swarms of tourists still visit the giant 212-foot (65-meter) sun pyramid each year to celebrate the spring equinox festival marking the sun's return to the northern hemisphere.


(Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Eric Beech)



What is National Archaeology Week?


National Archaeology Week is your unique chance to discover and explore the archaeological heritage of the United Kingdom. During this NINE DAY event, which will run from 12th–20th July, you can take part in excavation open days, hands-on activities, family fun days, guided tours, exhibitions, lectures, ancient art and craft workshops and much, much more.


The aim of this annual event is to encourage everyone, and especially young people and their families to visit sites of archaeological/historical interest or museums, heritage and resource centres, to see archaeology in action and to take part in activities on-site.


Events are taking place all over England and Wales. there are also a few events in Northern Ireland and one in Scotland.


To find out what events are taking place during NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGY WEEK 2008 choose an area from the dropdown box.


'National Archaeology Week is the CBA's flagship event, a national festival of archaeology with numerous events ... which showcase the best of British archaeology and allow everyone to see archaeology in action'. Mike Heyworth, Director, CBA