With the Recovery of Massive Grave Slabs, England’s Oldest Shipwreck Continues to Reveal Its Secrets

Maritime archaeologists hoisted the heavy artifacts, made of a special type of limestone, from 23 feet below the surface of the English Channel

Grave slab in a crate as seen from above
The smaller of the two grave slabs weighs around 154 pounds. Bournemouth University

At some point during the 13th century, under the rule of Henry III, a wooden ship transporting special limestone sank off the coast of southwest England. The vessel remained hidden in the English Channel for roughly 750 years, until a local charter boat skipper discovered it in 2020. It’s the oldest known shipwreck in England.

Maritime archaeologists at Bournemouth University have been exploring the wreckage ever since. Earlier this month, they accomplished the difficult task of hoisting two heavy medieval grave slabs to the surface. They hope the slabs will offer new insights into the craft of stonemasonry and 13th century life more broadly, according to a statement from the university.

Man squatting down next to open-topped crates with grave slabs in them
Tom Cousins, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University, poses for a photo with the two slabs. The larger of the two was found in two pieces. Bournemouth University

At the wreck site, they found a variety of artifacts, including a cooking cauldron, cups, pottery and kitchen objects.

The ship was also full of Purbeck stone, a type of limestone made from tightly packed freshwater snail shells that originates on the Isle of Purbeck off the southern coast of England. Among the Purbeck stone, they found large specimens, called mortars, that were used by mills to grind grains into flour. This discovery gave the ship its nickname, the “Mortar Wreck.”

“I've never seen anything like it," says Derek Pitman, an archaeologist at Bournemouth, to BBC News. "It probably hit some choppy waters as it was leaving the harbor.”

They also identified two Purbeck stone grave slabs, which were used across southern England, Ireland and beyond. The slabs were located roughly 23 feet beneath the surface. One is much larger than the other, weighing roughly 440 pounds and measuring roughly 6.5 feet long; it was also found in two pieces. The other weighs around 154 pounds and measures 5 feet long.

One is decorated with a wheel-headed cross carving, a design that was popular during the early 13th century, and the other has a splayed-arm cross, which was common later on in that same century. These Christian adornments suggest the grave slabs were meant to be “coffin lids or crypt monuments for high status individuals in the clergy,” per the statement.

“The wreck went down in the height of the Purbeck stone industry and the grave slabs we have here were a very popular monument for bishops and archbishops across all the cathedrals and monasteries in England at the time,” says Tom Cousins, also an archaeologist at Bournemouth, in the statement. “Examples have been found in Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral.”

Close-up shot of carved cross on grave slab
The Christian carvings suggest the grave slabs were destined to be coffin lids or crypt monuments for religious leaders. Bournemouth University

The team believes the carvings were made in London. But the slabs had not yet been polished, which raises questions about the various stages—and locations—of the stonemasonry process.

Now that they’ve recovered the slabs, the Bournemouth team will begin the process of desalinating and conserving them. Next year, when the new “Shipwreck Gallery” at the Poole Museum reopens, the slabs will be put on display, along with other artifacts pulled from the wreck.

Maritime archaeologists also hope to make new discoveries as they continue to explore the wreck. In the future, for example, they hope to further study the Irish oak timber frames that make up the hull.

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