Pottery points to Britain's earliest shipwreck site
A scuba diver who found medieval pottery could have unearthed the earliest shipwreck site in Britain. English Heritage, who describe it as ‘highly significant’, will investigate whether the site - off the Scilly Isles - needs legal protection.
The discovery was made by dive boat skipper David McBride, of St Mary’s. He believes the 400 pieces of pottery, mainly Saintonge green glaze pottery, were part of a consignment of wine being shipped from Bordeaux region to the monks at the St Nicholas Priory on Tresco.
Alison James, maritime archaeologist for English Heritage, said: “This could be one of the earliest wreck sites around the British Isles. I know there is a feeling it could be from a ship which went missing in1305 but it is too early to say.
“It is a highly significant site and we have been asked to look at whether it needs protecting under the Protection of Wrecks Act, which we will do working with the appropriate people. It is a really important site and potentially very exciting.”
Helping David is maritime historian and veteran diver Richard Larn, who at 82 still dives occasionally. A former Royal Navy diver, Richard, who also lives on St Mary’s, has written countless maritime history books and a six-volume work with Lloyd's Register of Shipping, the Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, is viewed as the definitive work of reference.
Richard said: “About five years ago while doing some commercial work in the Tresco Channel on moorings, David came across some pottery. I thought it was from 1200 to 1300. The following year he found some more shards. By coincidence at the same time there was a chap called John Allen from Exeter University who was here doing some work for the museum and when he saw it, it blew his mind and said it was French Saintonge pottery about 1250-1350 and was very important.
“We linked it to the fact that we have a priory here at Tresco, dating back to 1100 where three or four monks plus novices were based at St Nicholas’ Priory. They would have been the only people on Scilly who could have afforded to drink wine; certainly the local people would have been far too poor. This gave us the suggestion that here was a trading link between the Isles of Scilly and the Bordeaux area.
“Last October Kevin Camidge, a marine archaeologist from Penzance and chairman of CISMAS (Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Marine Archaeological Society) teamed up with Peter Holt of ProMare, an American charity which funds marine research and exploration, and put together a team to survey the area.
“They found all the pottery had come from one very tight area which means it is not ‘anchorage scatter’. Because all the pottery is dated from the same period it is 90 per cent conclusive that it is potentially a shipwreck.
“We also found animal bones, jaw bones of cows and pigs which suggest there were animals onboard. Also we found a complete oil lamp. We are waiting to go back in October to see what shows up.”
David McBride said: “The first two pieces I found were a spout. I thought at first it was just pottery from Tresco Gallery and that someone had brought it back to the boat, broken it and thrown it overboard. We sat on it for a while then I had another look the following year and I started to recover ten-inch pieces of Saintonge green glaze, now it’s up to 400 pieces.
“If it is confirmed a wreck then it will be the only wreck of this era in the whole country. People find small pieces of Saintonge, about two inches perhaps, which is what makes this a remarkable find, to come up with complete handles.
“I think if an excavation is allowed, from what I have seen so far, it would not be long before complete items were found, everything is coming up like it was buried yesterday.”
David has also found an antelope or deer horn which is shaped like a tool, neatly fashioned and about six inches long. “The fact that everything is from the same era really points towards it being a wreck.
“We’ll continue to monitor the site and make sure there are no problems. Any excavations would have to be done in the winter and done very sensitively because there are two prime moorings in this area. It is in such a high profile area we would know within seconds if anyone unauthorised tried to interfere and in any case it’s not as though it is a wreck containing treasure.”
David, who went to college at Plymouth and studied photographic art, is a fully qualified surface and underwater photographer. He worked offshore in the North Sea on oil rigs, left and joined the Royal Navy and served eight years in the weapons electrical branch. A father of two, he settled in the Isles of Scilly where he runs a dive charter boat, Tiburon, an Offshore 105 fibreglass boat which can carry 12 divers and two crew.
His father Peter McBride, an officer in the RN, taught David to dive when he was 12. David has been involved in marine archaeological expeditions before, most notably with his father on the Coronation, a wreck which sank during a storm off Plymouth in 1691.