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13 November 2014

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You are in: Dorset > Places > Places features > The mysterious Swash Channel shipwreck

The 'merman' recovered from the Swash wreck

The 'merman' from the Swash wreck

The mysterious Swash Channel shipwreck

It's one of the most significant shipwrecks in UK waters and the remains of a 17th century ship, sunk in the Swash Channel off the Dorset coast, could also be one of the most important.

Bournemouth University's Maritime Archaeological experts and students have been studying the mysterious Swash Channel wreck since 2006.

The remains of the vessel lie on sand seven metres beneath the strip of water known as The Swash, part of the English Channel off Poole Harbour.

The ship is thought to date from the 1620s - but the exact date, and the vessel's country of origin, is unknown.

Since 2004 the wreck has had protected status, but teams from the University are permitted to dive down to examine and explore the ship's remains.


Artefacts recovered from the wreck include cannons, leather shoes, wooden barrels, as well as copper, pewter and ceramic plates and cups.

Most unique of all is the discovery of two wood-carved mermen and an eight-metre-long carved rudder from the ship.

Apothecary jar from the Swash wreck

Apothecary jar from the Swash wreck

These objects, in particular, are an indication of the ship's high status, says Paola Palma, a lecturer in marine archaeology at Bournemouth University.

She says: "We know it was an important ship because of its carved rudder, but we don't know much more than that.

"We are planning a bigger excavation of the site in the summer which will help us to find out more."

Paola is heavily involved in the research on the wreck. She says: "We dive regularly between April to December - not every day, but we monitor the sediments, and the environment around the wreck - and there's still a lot more to discover.

"We've done a photo survey of the wreck and the results were impressive. It covered 40 metres and I am certain there is more [to find].

"As the wreck is on the edge of the Channel it's possible part of it has shifted, or has been washed away. It's a very dynamic area - a very busy site."

Sea life

The university's investigations have also revealed the wreck is home to plenty of sea life, too - including an unusual creature unfamiliar to the waters around Poole Harbour.

She says: "We've found evidence of a wood borer creature which appears to be degrading the site quite fast.

Bournemouth University's Paola Palma, a marine archaeology expert

Bournemouth University's Paola Palma

"It's strange, because the creature is more typically found in more temperate waters [waters with only mild changes in year round temperature]."

The organism is known as Lyrodus pedicellatus, a kind of 'ship worm', and Paola says it's unusual to find it in this part of the world.

She explains: "I was involved in the excavation of the Mary Rose [in Portsmouth] and I identified the same organism in the Solent, so it could be spreading."

The wreck is also unusual in that marine archaeology students are able to have access to it, as Bournemouth university's students can dive down to see it, taking part in the experience first hand.


So what's it like to actually to see the wreck?

Paola says: "It's thrilling, it feels like being a part of history - and we're finding more and more parts of the puzzle. We have to be careful though as it's a delicate equilibrium.

"I'm Italian, and I am used to diving in Italy in clear and warm waters so it's very different in that way too."

"The Open Day on Saturday 2 May is to help more people become part of what we do, as well as a chance to display the objects we've found from the wreck. It's about making what we do more accessible."

Katy Gardner from Poole Museum, who will be giving a talk at the Open Day, agrees: "Poole was a busy port so maritime archaeology is enormously important to the town, as it's a reminder of our local heritage and there's often amazing stories behind it.

"The quality of some of the carvings recovered from the wreckage - such as the mermen - is stunning too, really fascinating."

Katy says she hopes the museum will exhibit the recovered objects in due course, but to preserve artefacts from a sunken vessel means they have to be kept in water - but until then the teams from the University will continue their work to help shed a little more light on the mysterious and unidentified wreck under the sea. 

last updated: 08/05/2009 at 13:06
created: 16/04/2009

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