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Ships, Wrecks and Documentary Sources

Shipwrecks are amongst the most compelling of archaeological sites. They have the power to conjure images of past endeavours, conflict, maritime enterprise and acts of heroism in the face of the power of the sea. In all their locations, from deep-water to the inter-tidal zone, and beyond to reclaimed land, the archaeological remains of these sites are as varied as the ships themselves. Vessels lost in deeper water can appear incredibly well-preserved but are subject to an inevitable process of structural decline. Those ships that reached the shore only to be lost, and are found on our beaches and rocky shores, can seem to be truly wrecked and shattered, but when buried in a protective layer of sediment can remain unchanged for centuries.

The wreck of the HELVETIA at Rhossili on the Gower. Although only a small amount of the ship is visible above the sand, a large amount of its hull is likely to be preserved within the beach.

Our ability to map our seafloor and coastline, to discover the locations of wrecks and to understand the processes impacting them, has benefited hugely from advances in technology over the past quarter of a century. These themes are explored through two ‘Storymaps’ from Work Package 3.2 of the ‘Unpath’d Waters Project’:

Story Map 1: Imaging and Identifying Irish Sea Shipwrecks https://arcg.is/0GTyzz

Story Map 2: Preservation Potential of Irish Sea Shipwrecks https://arcg.is/1WWm5i0

An important component of both these pieces of work lies in our ability to combine knowledge about the archaeological record of the shipwreck with historical datasets. For example, in the first instance, being able to identify a shipwreck relies on having a record of the ship losses in the vicinity of the wreck that is as complete as possible. The National Monuments Record of Wales (NMRW) contains over 6000 entries for shipwrecks, ship losses and findspots of wreck material within its maritime dataset. Reference to this allows a list of potential candidates to be drawn up. As explained in Story Map 1, being able to rationalise characteristics such as length or hull-form between our observations of the archaeological record and the information held within historical sources can help confirm an identification.

Map of shipwrecks around Wales within the National Monuments Record of Wales.

The flow of information in this process must be two way, and that improvements to our knowledge of the archaeological material can re-inform our understanding of the historical record. Research by Innes McCartney (2022) has demonstrated the application of this on a large scale within the central Irish Sea and highlights the critical interrelationship between survey data and historical documentation. Story Map 1 illustrated how increasing survey resolution greatly enhances the level of interpretation of a given shipwreck. Similarly, as survey methods have been improved over the time, basic characteristics of sites, such as their length, have been refined and in some cases can change dramatically as a result of fresh surveys.

The scale of such changes can be illustrated by a wreck 1.7 nautical miles northwest of Strumble Head in the southern Irish Sea. The wreck, UKHO 9855, was first located and examined by the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) in 1980, and ascribed a surveyed length of 48m. On that basis, the wreck was identified as the site of the SS Moyallon, lost in the area in 1924, which had a length of 43m. The site of UKHO 9855 was re-examined by the UKHO in 2019 and its length was dramatically revised upwards to 81m based on the newer survey. This overall length was confirmed by survey and analysis undertaken by Bangor University and Innes McCartney respectively in June 2021 which ascribed the wreck a length of 76m (McCartney, 2022). Improvements in survey resolution in the 40 years since 1980 made it clear that the seabed remains of UKHO 9855 were far too long to be that of the SS Moyallon and the wreck (NPRN 800297) is currently classed as ‘Unidentified’ within the National Monuments Record of Wales.

Location of UKHO 9855 and UKHO 93302 off Strumble Head. Contains United Kingdom Hydrographic Office data © Crown copyright and database right.

But what of the SS Moyallon? The same survey work that led to a revision in the length of UKHO 9855 located a new shipwreck 2.5 nautical miles east-southeast. That wreck, UKHO 93302, has a surveyed length of 43m, providing a close match in terms of overall length to the SS Moyallon. This initial identification on the grounds of length and general area of loss is reinforced with reference to the plans of the SS Moyallon, available through the Lloyds Register Foundation. This illustrates a ship with similar arrangement of holds and machinery to the seabed remains of UKHO 93302, allowing that wreck to be reasonably identified as the SS Moyallon within the NMRW (NPRN 273191).

Profile & Deck Plan for SS Moyallon, 29th December 1917 (Copyright Lloyds Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre, document reference LRF-PUN-W706-0030-P)

The example of the SS Moyallon also allows us to think about the relationship between shipwreck remains and historical documents a little further. There are obvious physical differences between these two sources of information; one a 43m long shipwreck, the other a set of paper documents. Yet we need to consider them as a single dataset relating to the origin, construction, use, loss and afterlife of the ship. This may seem far-fetched, but it is worth remembering that the process of ordering, building and commissioning the Moyallon was underpinned by documentation ranging from letter to survey reports, to plans of the ship and its fixtures and fittings. Without these, the vessel could not have been built, launched, insured or used. In the same vein, documents such as navigational logs are as critical to the day-to-day operation of the ship as its engine or compass. Such observations hold true for ships in earlier centuries as much as they do for those in the modern world (Whitewright: 2020: 14) Finally, in the case of the SS Moyallon, what we might term the afterlife of the ship can be traced in the first instance through the Board of Trade Inquiry into its loss, including a highly detailed account of its final voyage. Its life as a ship then merges, via the survey records of the UKHO, into its status as a shipwreck. The completeness of our understanding of an individual ship/shipwreck is predicated on our ability to ‘read’ this myriad of sources, from account books to archaeological remains, in a broadly concurrent manner (see also Adams 2013: 47-49, Pink & Whitewright, 2022: 7-9).

It goes without saying that to read anything, you must first have access to it. At its heart, the UnPath’d Waters Project is about linking collections of maritime data (in all its forms) to improve access, and in turn promotes better understanding and enjoyment of those collections. The examples summarised above make clear the advantages to be had from being able to view archaeological survey results and related historical documents side by side. But achieving this has traditionally been difficult with different types of data held in different locations by different organisations, reflecting their own individual history of collation and curation. With particular reference to ships, by the far the most important sources for the period from about 1760 onwards are the different documents held by the Lloyds Register that were concerned with the detailed survey of vessels to underpin the marine insurance system. At a macro-scale, these comprise the Lloyds Register of shipping, casualty returns and lists of missing vessels, moving to more micro-scale surveys and plans of individual ships, as well as letters between ship surveyors and owners, etc. In the past few years the work of the Lloyds Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre (HEC) has revolutionised our ability to access source material through the systematic digitisation of records relating to individual vessels, as well as ensuring that larger scale resources like the Lloyds Register are consistently available online. As a result of this, it is now possible to link directly to such documents from wreck records held within national collections such as the NMRW.

To make one final return to the SS Moyallon, the NMRW entry for the vessel contains the most up to date information available relating to the seabed survey of both candidate wreck sites, and rationale for ascribing an identification. A summary description of the vessel history is provided and open-access links to documentary sources including its original casualty return entry and the Board of Trade inquiry into the vessel’s loss. A link to the vessel’s entry within the HEC archive opens up access to a further thirty historical documents ranging from engineering plans and cross-sections, through to letters concerning payment for survey fees. In the course of the UnPath’d Waters Project a further 47 shipwreck records within the NMRW have now been linked through to the rich content afforded by the Lloyds Register HEC.

The linking of source material in this way is required for our future ability to rationalise and understand the shipwreck dataset within our seas and around our coasts. Being able to quickly and effectively research the historical particulars of an individual vessel, or the surveying details of a specific wreck site, without embarking on multiple research trips to different parts of the UK is critical in a world of inevitably shrinking budgets and reduced staffing levels. It should also be re-emphasised that this process is not simply about establishing the identification of a shipwreck as a means to better appraise its historical significance. Being better informed about the physical properties of a vessel, its cargo, manner of loss, etc, can lead to a better understanding of the degradation trajectory that any surviving archaeological material might take. This in turn allows a better understanding of shipwreck survival on a broader scale (see Story Map 2) or to predict where pollution from historic wrecks might be a problem. At a time of unparalleled development pressure within the seas around the UK, being able to fully understand our maritime heritage from all perspectives, both archaeological and documentary, is crucial if we are to properly manage, understand and enjoy it, both now and in the future.

Dr Julian Whitewright, Senior Investigator (Maritime), RCAHMW

Sources and links

Adams, J., 2013. A Maritime Archaeology of Ships: Innovation and Social Change in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Oxford: Oxbow.

Bangor University School of Ocean Sciences https://www.bangor.ac.uk/sos

Lloyds Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre https://hec.lrfoundation.org.uk/

McCartney, I., 2022. Echoes from the Deep. Leiden: Sidestone Press. https://www.sidestone.com/books/echoes-from-the-deep

National Monuments Record of Wales, Maritime Dataset: available for download through DataMapWales https://datamap.gov.wales/layers/geonode:nmrw_jan2024_maritimesites

NPRN 273191 Moyallon (UKHO 93302) https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/273191/

NPRN 273914 Helvetia (UKHO 12338) https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/273914/

NPRN 800297 Unidentified Wreck (UKHO 9855) https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/800297/

Pink, J., and Whitewright, J., 2022. ‘A Life Less than Ordinary: The Schooner Ocean (1821-1865)’. Historical Archaeology 56: 3-15.

United Kingdom Hydrographic Office Bathymetry Data License v1.0 https://seabed.admiralty.co.uk/assets/TERMS%20OF%20USE%20Seabed%20Mapping%20Data.pdf

UnPath’d Waters Project https://unpathdwaters.org.uk/

Whitewright, J., 2020. ‘Vessel History: Building, Service and Loss’. In The Stirling Castle, a 70-gun Ship Lost in the Great Storm of 1703. Archaeological Investigations 1979–2009, J. Whitewright (ed.), pp 5-14. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, British Series 656.


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