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Seabed discovery from the oldest wreck on record

By The Cornishman  |  Posted: May 31, 2012

  • Diver David McBride pictured with some of the pottery recovered from Tresco Channel.

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WINE jugs thought to have been on their way to a priory of monks on the Isles of Scilly have been discovered on the seabed, marking the site of what could be the oldest wreck in the islands.

An island maritime historian and diver has identified a number of broken pottery shards, which have been linked to a 700-year-old unidentified wreck.

The wreck, which occurred in 1305, is recorded in the Calendar of State Papers dated to the 14th century reign of King Edward I.

Maritime expert Richard Larn, a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd, said: "To find an unknown shipwreck site today to add to Scilly's list is a rare event and to find one that is nearly 707 years old is remarkable."

Mr Larn's stepson, dive boat skipper David McBride, of St Mary's, found the first large pottery shard five years ago at the north end of Tresco Channel close to Cromwell's castle.

Working with Mr Larn, who accurately dated that first find, Mr McBride had been quietly searching for proof that it was a possible medieval wreck and not just a typical anchorage scatter of broken pottery.

"Underwater archaeologists surveyed the site last year supported by Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Maritime Archaeological Society (CISMAS) under Kevin Camidge and ProMare, a US charity that backs scientific and archaeological projects," said Mr Larn.

"After plotting surface recoveries of an additional 180 shards they concluded there was a single core location area which has yielded almost 300 shards to date, including wine jar fragments with handles up to nine inches long."

The majority has been identified as green glaze Saintonge ware, from a small region on France's Atlantic coast within Poitou-Charentes.

Additional shards can be linked to Normandy, Southampton and Cornwall, but the majority are broken French wine jugs, presumably brought in for the monks of St Nicholas Priory on Tresco.

"They would have been the only islanders of the period 1250 to 1350 AD who would have been able to afford such luxury," added Mr Larn.

Of the channel site, the definitive Lloyd's Shipwreck Index, compiled by Mr Larn and his wife Bridget, records: "Coroner for the Isles of Scilly William le Peor, on going to Tresco to take charge of the salvaged cargo, was seized by the mob and imprisoned until he was able to purchase his freedom."

Also found lying on the seabed surface last week was what diver Mr McBride called one of the most exciting underwater finds in the islands – a red deer antler fashioned into a hand tool. It is currently being radio carbon-dated by Glasgow University and it is believed it could be even older than the other shards.

Mr Larn is credited with the finding in 1988 of the oldest wreck in Scilly – an unidentified ship on Bartholomew Ledge from which was recovered a Spanish-Netherlands coin dated 1555.

The last wreck on Scilly was the Cita 15 years ago, but despite a prevailing impression that the islands have more than anywhere else in then Britain, Mr Larn says nothing could be further from the truth.

"Give or take, Scilly has had only a paltry nine wrecks per mile of coastline compared with Cornwall's 22 to 25," he added.

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