Discovering the ‘Bronze Bell’ Wreck
Find out more about this mysterious wreck ahead of our next free online talk, ‘Diving Back on the Bronze Bell Wreck’ by Alison James, MSDS Marine, on behalf of the CHERISH project on 17 February at 5pm.
From 1750 to the early nineteenth century the demand for good-quality stone for prestigious building projects in Britain – cathedrals such as St Paul’s and the great houses of the gentry – increased dramatically. Carrara marble from Tuscany was especially prized and imported on merchant ships with the inevitable occasional tragedy. In 1978 divers working near the treacherous Sarn Badrig, a thirteen-mile-long sandy reef in Cardigan Bay, uncharted until 1740, discovered a wreck with a cargo of around 43 blocks of marble from Carrara weighing about 66 tons, still apparently stacked as originally positioned. The marble varied considerably in size from small 0.80 metre cubes to larger blocks measuring 2.8x 1 x 0.8 metres. The ship had been heavily provisioned with armaments, as was the norm to protect precious cargoes, and eighteen main battery, eight smaller cast-iron and ten wrought-iron guns were found around the ship). Amongst them were numbers of anchors; the broken fluke of one suggests that it had snagged on the raised seabed south of the reef while being trailed in stormy weather as the captain was attempting to run the vessel into shore. The ship may have been momentarily halted, then forced off course as the fluke broke off, causing her to run aground and eventually break up. Excavations on the wreck continued until 1996 producing a large quantity of artefacts that give an insight into life aboard. Among these was a bronze bell dated 1677, bearing the legend Laudate dominus omnes gente (‘All people praise the Lord’). Found during one of the first exploratory dives on the vessel, this discovery led to the informal name by which the wreck is now known The wooden structure of the vessel itself has perished and though it is possible that elements may yet survive below the cargo, natural scouring beneath the marble blocks has left them elevated on rocky outcrops making it unlikely that any features will be well enough preserved to allow coherent reconstruction. Little can therefore be said with confidence about the vessel save that it was probably not large. Medium-sized contemporary merchant ships with cargoes of 75tonnes of marble are known. Nor can we be sure of the nationality of the ship and crew, as Dutch, French and English ships are known to have been involved in this trade. While the cargo was certainly Italian, pewter objects found on the wreck included a platter stamped in Lyon (France) in 1700, while the armament conforms to a French style and the majority of the seventeenth-century coins found from time to time on the adjacent beach are French; this all suggests that the ‘Bronze Bell’ may have been a French merchant ship travelling from north Italy via Genoa or Leghorn (Livorno) to Britain before being blown severely off course and wrecked. The latest coin from the wreck is dated to 1702, which gives a useful earliest date for the sinking of the vessel. Merchant ships have always outnumbered ships of war, but their very number and variety led to their having excited less contemporary comment. We tend to know little about the appearance and longevity of such vessels. The ‘Bronze Bell’ may have resembled the ‘fly-boats’ known to have carried marble cargo, a development from the three-masted Dutch ‘flute’ (fluit) with its high, narrow quarter deck and rounded stern. Piracy and privateering were rife and these merchant ships were built with a single gun deck, making them very similar in appearance to contemporary warships.
By Sian Rees, joint editor of Wales and the Sea
Wales and the Sea: 10,000 Years of Welsh Maritime History
This text has taken from our award-winning publication Wales and the Sea: 10,000 Years of Welsh Maritime History (Best Illustrated Maritime Book of the Year by the Maritime Foundation, 2020) which features over one hundred essays written by over fifty different experts on the maritime history of Wales.
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Diving Back on the Bronze Bell Wreck
To find out more, please come to our next free online talk, ‘Diving Back on the Bronze Bell Wreck’ by Alison James, MSDS Marine on behalf of the CHERISH project.
Free tickets are still available!
In 2021 MSDS Marine were commissioned by the CHERISH Project to undertake a programme of diving on the Bronze Bell protected wreck site. The wreck was last visited by an archaeological contractor in 2004. In addition, this visit was the first to assess the impact of climate change on the wreck. In this talk Alison James will give an update on the diving fieldwork and discuss the findings.