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Specialist Report

Date 1995

Event ID 932315

Category Documentary Reference

Type Specialist Report


In February 1979 the wreck of an armed wooden sailing ship was recognised by Mr John Dadd, a naval diving instructor, immediately E of Duart Point. A Frechen stoneware flagon was recovered, and the discovery was reported to the Archaeological Diving Unit, Department of Transport in 1991.

Pre-disturbance survey by ADU in 1991 showed the wreck to be situated at the base of a rock face sloping at an angle of about 45 degrees. The archaeological material is situated within a seabed of gravely sand with some intrusive boulders and at a Low Water depth of between 8 and 9.5m. The environment comprises zones of mid- and high-energy, and a tidal set of up to 1.5 knots (but confined mainly to the ebb) runs from E to W across the wreck.

The remains then visible comprised seven heavily-concreted cast-iron guns of up to 2.5m length, a wrought iron anchor, various iron concretions and complexes of concretion, two or possibly three concentrations of stone ballast, and considerable quantities of exposed organic material, including articulated structural elements. The character of the ballast was seen to differ between the two mounds, that to the W comprising large flat slabs, which had evidently been packed with some care, and while the central mound comprised a tumble of smaller and more rounded boulders.

A further visit by ADU in 1992 revealed further extensive destabilisation, and also that the wreck had been independently discovered by members of the Dumfries and Galloway branch of the Scottish Sub-Aqua Club, who had recovered exposed items including pieces of carved wooden decoration and other wooden objects, a hoard of badly-corroded silver coins, a grindstone and the brass lock-plate of a Scottish snaphaunce pistol of mid-17th-century date. Under these circumstances, some 83 further objects were recovered by the National Museums of Scotland.

Six further monitoring visits over the winter of 1992-3 served to demonstrate further erosion, most notably in the sediment-filled gully that slopes towards the shore at the E side of the wreck. A small but complex deposit of rope, a wooden sheave-block, rammer-heads, a shoe, wooden staves and some fine decorated wooden grooved and moulded panelling was investigated and recorded before the area was covered with gravel aggregate.

A semi-permanent field base was established in 1993 for further survey and protective sandbagging which took place between then and 1995. The environmental dynamics around the wreck were seen to be finely balanced but the ongoing activity may be attributed to seismic activity, propeller activity (most significantly from passing ferries) and diver interference, the latter factor being probably the most significant. Erosive activity across the wreck appears to be cyclical, a critical point being reached at the ADU intervention of 1992.

The most significant environmental determinant is the ebb flow which results from the drainage of Duart Bay into the Sound of Mull. This complex flow comprises in essence a smooth run across seaward side of the site which eddies into the part nearest to shore causing the build-up of sediment which has encapsulated the main organic deposits in drifts against the cliff base. It is these sediments which now display the greatest degree of destabilisation, particularly when a spring tide coincides with a strong NW wind. Under these conditions intrusive coarse sand from the wide and shallow areas around Duart Bay is brought to the site where it is both deposited and triggers further erosion with the resulting exposure and displacement of, and mechanical and biological decay of, archaeological objects and deposits. Under these circumstances, sandbagging can only be considered a temporary expedient.

The wreck has also formed the basis for an experimental technical study into the corrosion potential of iron objects, which indicates that the iron cannons are currently corroding rapidly. Similar study has also been carried out into the biodeterioration of both metal and organic materials under the known conditions around the wreck.

It is evident that a substantial part of the lower forward hull survives as an articulated structure which has been pinned down and preserved by the two main ballast-mounds. On the analogy of the nearby wreck of the Dartmouth (NM74NW 2), it appears probable that the projected rescue excavation within the eastern part of the site will reveal rich deposits of artefactual and other material. High-quality wooden panelling and carvings within this area indicate the collapsed stern.

The discovery of the following artifacts (currently under conservation at the National Museums of Scotland) has been recorded:

Objects of wood - carvings (all of oak)

1. Badge of the Heir Apparent (to the English throne). 840x281mm, comprises two conjoined pieces in low relief, showing the lower parts of three ostrich feathers enfiling a coronet with a scroll bearing the almost-complete motto ICH DIEN.

2. Two conjoining fragments of carved planking (of total length 972mm) bear a foliated thistle and a seven-stringed harp of Celtic form, the national symbols of Scotland and Ireland respectively. The emblems are separated by scroll borders and the piece is embellished with deeply indented nulling.

3. Warrior head, 460x320mm. This profile in low relief depicts a moustachioed warrior of classical form with curled locks emerging from beneath the neck-guard of a peaked helmet, the top of which would have continued on an adjacent board. An acanthus scroll beyond the neck-guard suggests that the helmet had been garlanded. This motif is common in 17th-century ship decoration, being paralleled in the Vasa and Kronan (Sweden) wrecks.

4. Winged cherub, 460x192mm.

5. Scrolled carving, 1784x180mm, bearing a foliar motif with a petalled flower partly obscured by a diagonal band, and appropriate to the taffrail, gallery surrounds or beakhead.

Objects of wood - other

6. Turned decorative pieces of black locust (Robina pseudoacacia) and possibly to be associated with the carvings or the interior embellishment; some are cut to a flat surface on one side.

7. Barrel costrel of oak with split-willow hoops, length 165mm and maximum restored diameter 110mm. Seven staves and one end survived articulated, the stave that incorporates the stoppered neck being carved in the solid.

8. Two staves of juniper from a flared wooden bucket of height 130mm and restored diameter of about 125mm at the base. The piece had evidently been bound with two split hoops and bears traces of a punched diamond pattern.

9. Turned wooden bowl of maple, of diameter 135mm and height 76mm, worked to a high standard.

10. Turned wooden bowl of maple, of diameter 102mm and height 62mm.

11. Brush back of oak scrubbing brush, 205x62mm with 60 bristle hoes, arranged in rows of five.

Ceramic objects

12. Hebridean crogan pot of height 226mm, hand-made of buff earthenware with a bag-shaped body and an everted rim of diameter about 200mm, discovered at some distance down-tide from the wreck and not in demonstrable association with it.

13. Frechen Bartmann jug of rim diameter 38mm and height 210mm, in reddish-grey stoneware with characteristic dark brown salt glaze. The sprigged face-mask has a ladder-type mouth and flowing beard while the medallion incorporates a ten-petalled double rosette, a central six-pointed star and rouletted surround. Paralleled in Batavia (Australia, VOC, 1629), Vergulde Draeck (1656) and Kennemerland (HU67SE 8001) wrecks.

14. Clay pipes. Three unmarked bowls of form consistent with mid-17th century English origin.

15. Brick and tile. Complete brick of size 229x102x51mm and form of 'Tudor' brick of 16th and 17th centuries. Fragments of yellowish tile 15mm thick were also found; both brick and tile were probably associated with the galley hearth and its surround, as on the Dartmouth.

Stone objects

16. Rotary grindstone of coarse sandstone, diameter 700mm, 200mm thick at the centre reducing to 185mm at the rim, with a spindle hole 120mm square. Not quite circular, with evidence of use on horizontal surfaces and on sides close to the edge.

17. ?Touchstone. Hard fine-grained stone of octagonal shape, 30x17mm, with long scratch marks on both faces.

Metal objects

18. Brass lock-plate from a left-handed snaphaunce pistol. Length 175mm, chased with foliar decoration and carries initials GT in a thistle-flanked cartouche. A weapon of distinctively Scottish type, probably bearing the initials of George Thompson (fl. 1639-61), an Edinburgh gunmaker.

19. Copper kettle of two-looped form and rivetted sheet construction, diameter 400mm, height 430mm and approximate capacity 50 litres.

20. Pewter flagon of size 250x130mm and estimated capacity 0.9 litres, with a hinged lid with finial and thumb-piece. A small vessel found in apparent association may be a separate drinking-cup which fitted inside it.

21. Buckles and small brass fittings, including some with parallels on the Batavia.

22. Rapier hilt of wire-wound form with spherical pommel and quillons appropriate to an English weapon of the first half of the 17th century, revealed by radiography of a concretion 380mm long.

23. Pocket watch, possibly of 'Puritan' type, revealed by radiography of a circular concretion of diameter 55m and depth 25mm.

24. A 4lb (1.8 kg) lead merchant's weight was found on the wreck during the excavations of 1997. It measures 104mm in diameter by up to 22.5mm in thickness (the basal concavity probably resulting from casting shrinkage). The edges are bevelled and milled, and the upper surface bears marks which comprise the letter C under a crown, a sword and a winged figure holding a sword. The crown can only represent Charles, the sword is the symbol of the City of London and the winged figure is that of the Archangel Michael, this being the seal of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers of London.

Although the concreted hoard of between 300 and 400 silver coins could not be disassembled, the artefactual assemblage indicates a date for the wreck within the earlier part of the 17th century. This date accords with the historically-attested expedition of 1653 by a Commonwealth (Cromwellian) flotilla under Col. Ralph Cobbett to capture Duart Castle (NM73NW 1), the seat of Clan Maclean who retained royalist sympathies.

The distribution of the remains is seen as representing only the wreck of a single ship, and the discovery of such carvings as the badge of the Heir Apparent suggests an identification with the Swan, a fifth-rate warship formerly owned by the Crown. This ship may be identified with a 'pinnace' which was built in 1641, had a crew of 60 and perhaps as many as ten substantial guns, and served on the Irish Sea until 1645. The survival of emblems of royalty into the Commonwealth may be explained by their being placed in store below deck.

The Swan is recorded as being wrecked off Duart Castle in September 1653. She was one of six Cromwellian warships sent (under Col. Ralph Cobbett) to root out Royalist sympathisers. The castle was found deserted and the six ships of the flotilla were scattered in a storm on the 13th September, three being sunk and the remainder dismasted and disabled. The remains of the Martha and Margaret of Ipswich and the Speedwell of Lyn may lie nearby.

C J M Martin 1995; I D MacLeod 1995; D Gregory 1995; C J M Martin 1997b; C Martin 1998a; C Martin 1998b; J P Delgado 1998.

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