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Bronze Age shipwreck found off Devon coast

The shipwreck dating to 900 B.C. was discovered in May 2009 near the town of Salcombe (map) by divers from the South West Maritime Archaeological Group.

The recovery work took place between February and November 2009 but the discovery was not announced until the International Shipwreck Conference, in Plymouth (february 2010).

The trading vessel was carrying an extremely valuable cargo of tin and hundreds of copper ingots from the Continent when it sank.

Archaeologists have described the vessel, which is thought to date back to around 900 BC, as being a “bulk carrier” of its age.

Experts say the “incredibly exciting” discovery provides new evidence about the extent and sophistication of Britain’s links with Europe in the Bronze Age as well as the remarkable seafaring abilities of the people during the period.
The copper and tin would have been used for making bronze – the primary product of the period which was used in the manufacture of not only weapons, but also tools, jewellery, ornaments and other items.

Archaeologists believe the copper – and possibly the tin – was being imported into Britain and originated in a number of different countries throughout Europe, rather than from a single source, demonstrating the existence of a complex network of trade routes across the Continent. Academics at the University of Oxford are carrying out further analysis of the cargo in order to establish its exact origins.

However, it is thought the copper would have come from the Iberian peninsular, Alpine Europe, especially modern day Switzerland, and possibly other locations in France, such as the Massif Central, and even as far as Austria. It is first time tin ingots from this period have ever been found in Britain, a discovery which may support theories that the metal was being mined in the south west at this time. If the tin was not produced in Britain, it is likely it would have also come from the Iberian peninsular or from eastern Germany.

The wreck

The wreck has been found in just eight to ten metres of water in a bay near Salcombe, south Devon, by a team of amateur marine archaeologists from the South West Maritime Archaeological Group.
In total, 295 artefacts have so far been recovered, weighing a total of more than 84 kg.The cargo recovered includes 259 copper ingots and 27 tin ingots. Also found was a bronze leaf sword, two stone artefacts that could have been sling shots, and three gold wrist torcs – or bracelets.

The team have yet to uncover any of the vessel’s structure, which is likely to have eroded away.

However, experts believe it would have been up to 40 ft long and up to 6 ft wide, and have been constructed of planks of timber, or a wooden frame with a hide hull. It would have had a crew of around 15 and been powered by paddles.

Archaeologists believe it would have been able to cross the Channel directly between Devon and France to link into European trade networks, rather than having to travel along the coast to the narrower crossing between modern day Dover and Calais.

The few surviving Bronze Age boats from northwest Europe were made of solid wood. But other evidence, such as rock carvings, points to boats made of animal hide stretched over a timber frame, said marine archaeologist Dave Parham.

Such vessels would have been more than capable of crossing between France and Britain or transporting the 190-pound (86-kilogram) load recovered at the newfound wreck site, Parham said.

Salcombe in Devon


Bronze age bulk carrier

A golden torque or bracelet.

A bronze sword is among the newly revealed artifacts from the 900 B.C. shipwreck off Salcombe, U.K. The 18-inch-long (45-centimeter) sword is of a style dated to between 950 and 850 B.C., but researchers don't yet know if the weapon was British-made or imported.

Wreck site

Although the vessel's cargo came from as far afield as southern Europe, it is unlikely it would have been carried all the way in the same craft, but in a series of boats, undertaking short coastal journeys.
The wreck site is on part of the seabed called Wash Gully, which is around 300 yards from the shore. There is evidence of prehistoric field systems and Bronze Age roundhouses on the coast nearby and it is thought the vessel could have sunk while attempting to land, or could have been passing along the coast.
The coastline is notoriously treacherous and there is a reef close by which could have claimed the vessel.

"Everything that is in the ship sinks with it and is on the seabed somewhere. What you would call this today is a bulk carrier. It was carrying what was for the time a large consignment of raw materials."

One other Bronze Age vessel has previously been found near Salcombe, where just 53 artefacts were recovered. Another eight Bronze Age items have also been found at a third nearby spot, indicating another possible wreck.

Bronze age trade network

Dr Peter Northover, a scientist at the University of Oxford who has been analysing the find, said: "These are the produce of a multitude of countries, scattered right around Europe, up and down the Atlantic coast and inland.

"A lot of stuff may have moved across land, but it is eminently possible at this stage that there were quite sophisticated maritime networks with specialist mariners – people who know how to read the tides and the stars and who are not just casually going out on the sea to do some deep sea fishing.

"The mainstay of this exchange network might have been a number of vessels undertaking short journeys. It doesn't mean there weren't occasional vessels and people going longer distances."

The only other Bronze Age wrecks found in the UK have been located on land, or on the foreshore, at Dover and North Ferriby, on the Humber.

Ben Roberts, Bronze Age specialist at the British Museum, said: "It is an incredibly exciting find. What we have here is really, really good evidence of trade. We don't get many shipwreck sites.

"We hardly ever get to see evidence of this cross Channel trade in action. It is a huge amount of cargo."

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