Uncovering the Mortar Wreck in Studland Bay
England’s oldest surviving shipwreck!
How the discovery of a 13th century wreck, laying in the waters off Studland bay, is helping archaeologists to uncover an overlooked period in English history
By Tom Cousins, Diving and Maritime Archaeology Officer, Bournemouth University
Life in thirteenth century England
The mid-13th century is a time that is often overlooked and overshadowed in English history. At this point England was ruled by King John (1199-1216), followed by King Edward I (1272-1307). It was a time of relative peace, good harvests, and a rapidly expanding population and economy. England’s industries boomed, leading to the construction and expansion of ecclesiastical buildings such as Salisbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, along with hundreds of parish churches and monasteries.
During this period the towns of Poole, Wareham and Corfe were granted markets and fairs, signalling the amount of trade flowing through the region. One of Purbecks biggest exports was stone, the most famous of which was Purbeck Marble. A type of polishable limestone, Purbeck Marble features heavily in nearly all the great ecclesiastical buildings of the medieval period and was shipped as far away as Denmark and Italy.
Mortar Wreck discovered
Fast forward 800 years and the Bournemouth University dive team were investigating several historic wrecks in the Poole area. Our skipper, Trevor Small, suggested we dive an obstruction on the edge of the main shipping channel, which he had noticed becoming more exposed in the last few years. This site was last dived in 1982, where it was reported as a pile of random stones of no interest. So we were not expecting much excitement as we proceeded to dive the site, and were greeted by the expected pile of stones, seven metres in diameter and one metre high. What we did not expect to see was a seabed covered in Purbeck Marble mortars, which gave the wreck its name.
Dating the Mortar Wreck
Knowing we had discovered something very significant we returned the following dive season, with a dendrochronologist (an expert that can tell by studying the growth rings of the timbers, when and where the tree was grown).
In this case we discovered the timbers from the Mortar Wreck were originally grown in the south of Ireland. Interestingly they came from the same forests as the timbers used to build parts of Salisbury Cathedral! The timbers were felled at some point between 1242-65, at the peak of the Purbeck Marble Industry in this area. Further investigation of the site revealed three grave slabs – classic medieval monuments. Similar slabs as these, from the Purbeck quarries, were used to commemorate Archbishops and Abbots across the country and further afield in France and Ireland. Examples of them can be found in churches across England, and in particular around Purbeck.
The Grave Slabs
From the work conducted on the site so far, we can tell that the ship was outbound from Poole Harbour. Due to the scale of the marble industry at this period, the ship could have been destined for any port in Europe. The fact the grave slabs observed on the wreck were not polished suggested that the vessel could have been travelling to one of the larger construction projects in operation. These large-scale projects would have had their own polishers on site, or at a London stone workshop. However, it is also a possibility that a Marbler may have been present, as part of the crew, and was travelling onboard with their goods to finish them on location.
It should be noted that the wreck has provided a survival bias, as stone will survive under the water whereas other cargo may have disappeared. For example, other cargoes (also known to be exported from the Poole Harbour area) such as beans, fish, wool, plaster, lime and oyster shells would not have survived underwater on a shipwreck!
Investigating this wreck will give us a unique opportunity to gain some insight into the medieval period and trade of the 13th century. There has been no other archaeological site or historical source like this. Not only can it tell us about the technology of the ships and the trade networks of the cargo, but will also give us an insight into the lives of the sailors and the environment where they lived. As such, the Mortar Wreck has already opened new channels of investigation and interpretation into the logistics and livelihoods of people from the thirteenth century, a relatively poorly understood period of history.
Plans to excavate the site are in progress with the slab due to be recovered from the site in 2024 to go on display at Poole Museum’s new maritime galleries.
Where to find out more about the Mortar Wreck
You can view some amazing 3d model of the cauldron and other finds from the Mortar Wreck at Sketchfab.com.
For more details about the wreck and the fundraising to support its conservation and excavation see the Bournemouth University website page.
Poole Museum is located near the old town area of Poole, on the Lower High Street. It is temporarily closed to the public whilst major conservation and restoration works are underway. They plan to re-open towards the end of 2024.
Find out more details on the Poole Museum website.
This article was originally published in Love It Local magazine, winter 2023 issue. Read the magazine online on the Love It Local Purbeck website.