Marine archaeologists recently removed the remains of a nearly 500-year-old Elizabethan-era ship discovered in the bottom of a quarry lake approximately 1,000 feet (300 meters) from the Kent County coast in southern England. Recent tests have confirmed the ship was constructed from wood harvested sometime between the years 1558 and 1580, which proves the unknown ship was built during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603).
The well-preserved timbers of the Tudor period vessel were first discovered in April 2022 during dredging operations carried out by CEMEX UK, a construction materials supply company that has access to the Kent County quarry on the Dungeness headland. Realizing they’d found something important, CEMEX officials alerted the Kent County Council, which in turn contacted Historic England to report the find. The preservationist organization put the Council in touch with Wessex Archaeology, while also supplying emergency funding to support excavation work at the quarry site.
The Wessex archaeologists aren’t sure if the ship was wrecked at its current location in the 16th century, when the English Channel headland and its quarry may have been submerged under the ocean. It’s equally possible that the ship was simply abandoned in the quarry lake when it had outlived its usefulness. A much closer examination of the ship’s timbers will be required to determine its condition at the time it reached its current location.
The hull of the 16th-century ship remains at the quarry. ( Wessex Archaeology )
At this point, it is impossible to identify the ship by name. Nevertheless, it is still an extraordinary find.
“To find a late 16th-century ship preserved in the sediment of a quarry was an unexpected but very welcome find indeed,” exclaimed marine archaeologist Andrea Hamel, in a Wessex Archaeology press release . “The ship has the potential to tell us so much about a period where we have little surviving evidence of shipbuilding but yet was such a great period of change in ship construction and seafaring.”
Very few 16th century vessels have survived or been recovered, despite it being an active time in British seafaring history. Trade expanded dramatically during the Elizabethan era , and the English Channel served as a major route for ships moving through the region. The English Channel was used by English trading ships that sailed up and down the Atlantic coastline of Western Europe during this period.
Archaeologist records the ship’s remains on-site. ( Wessex Archaeology )
The Secrets of Tudor Period Shipping and Shipbuilding Revealed
Regardless of why or how the ship ended up where it did, its final resting place was fortuitous. Its remains were well protected in the quarry lake, and Wessex archaeologists were able to recover more than 100 timbers from the ship’s hull.
With help from Historic England, they performed a dendrochronological analysis of the timbers, and these tests revealed the wood for the ship had been harvested in the latter half of the 16th century. The wood used was English oak, which was known for its sturdiness and reliability and remained the wood of choice in English shipbuilding up through the mid-19th century. Queen Elizabeth I was actually worried about possible shortages of the wood during her reign, and she commissioned a large-scale replanting project to make sure there would be plenty of English oak available for builders constructing trading vessels or warships.
The 16th century represented a time of change and evolution in English shipbuilding, and in Northern European ship construction in general. In this period there was a major shift away from traditional clinker construction (the style associated with Viking shipbuilding practices) and toward a frame-first construction style, in which the internal framing of the ship would be built initially, with planking being added later to create a smooth and eminently seaworthy outer hull.
The new style was used to construct the Mary Rose , perhaps England’s most famous recovered wrecked ship, which was built between 1509 and 1511 at the behest of King Henry VIII , who commissioned it as the lead vessel in his navy fleet. This means the technique would have been well established by the time the newly discovered ship was constructed. Significantly, it was this style of ship that was sailed across the Atlantic by the earliest English settlers in the New World (the Americas).
A still from a 3D model of the 16th-century ship found at Dungeness quarry. ( Wessex Archaeology )
An Archaeological Treasure to Be Preserved for the Ages
Overall, there is still much that remains unknown about shipbuilding practices, and shipping along the English Channel coast, from the Tudor period and from the Elizabethan era specifically. As researchers continue their work on the newly discovered ship, this situation should change for the better.
“The remains of this ship are really significant, helping us to understand not only the vessel itself but the wider landscape of shipbuilding and trade in this dynamic period,” stated Antony Firth, the Head of Marine Heritage Strategy at Historic England. “CEMEX staff deserve our thanks for recognizing that this unexpected discovery is something special and for seeking archaeological assistance.”
Wessex archaeologists have been carefully examining the recovered timbers, using laser scanning and digital photography to make a record of their discoveries. Once this work is complete the plan is to rebury the timbers in the quarry lake, where the silt will help keep them preserved indefinitely.
The story of the recovery of the ultra-rare Elizabethan era ship was featured on the January 1st episode of the BBC2 television program “Digging for Britain.” Residents of the United Kingdom who missed the program can still view it on the BBC2 website, where it is available for viewing on demand .
Top image: Archaeologist records the Elizabethan era ship’s remains on-site. Source: Wessex Archaeology
By Nathan Falde