The Guernsey Gallo-Roman Wreck

‘The ship is the largest, most intact sea-going vessel of its antiquity found outside the Mediterranean. As a whole it is unique, but shares several features with other known shipwrecks and with written and iconographic ancient sources.’ (Rule and Monaghan 1993)


Discovery

Diving in Guernsey’s St Peter Port harbour is normally impractical due to the volume of traffic, except for one day each year, when access is traditionally allowed - on Christmas Day. Local diver Richard Keen was exercising this right to dive for scallops in the harbour, on Christmas Day in 1982, when he noticed the timbers of a wreck protruding from the sediment. The timbers were located in the centre of the narrow entrance to the modern harbour and were clearly being exposed (and therefore under threat) by the propeller wash of vessels passing overhead. The wrecked vessel seemed very heavily built, flat bottomed and about 20 metres long, though at this stage there was nothing to suggest its great antiquity.

The following year, a return visit to the site lead to the discovery of associated Roman tile fragments and the age of the wreck began to be suspected. A timber fragment was subsequently dated to AD 110 ± 80, thus alerting everyone to the importance of the site and also to the combined danger it faced - from imminent destruction by harbour traffic and biological attack of the newly exposed timbers. A further, more potent threat was the planned intention of the local authorities to dredge the harbour, to allow the passage of larger ferries. Urgent action to was required, to save the wreck from total destruction.

Excavation

Excavation took place in two main campaigns, in November 1984 and March 1985. A short third campaign took place in September 1986 with additional dives being made around the site by Richard Keen (occasionally with other divers) until 1988. Essentially this was a rescue excavation, carried out in very difficult conditions by a mixture of archaeological and local divers, under the direction of Dr Margaret Rule. Harbour traffic frequently disrupted operations, lowered visibility generally and also damaged partially excavated material. During the winter of 1984/85 the site was buried under tons of sandbags but even these were disturbed several times and had to be laboriously replaced by local divers. Despite the difficulties, the wreck site was properly surveyed, the material within the wreck was excavated and the released timbers were then removed to a holding tank, to await conservation.

 

Type of Vessel

The ship was a cargo vessel, constructed entirely of oak (Quercus sp.) It had a flat bottom and, although the bow section was missing, is thought to have had a symmetrical shape, with stem and stern posts butted on to the ends of the three-part keel. The planks (or strakes) making up the bottom and sides of the ship were nailed onto an estimated 40 substantial timber frames, using iron nails. Smaller planks (or stealers) were inserted between the larger strakes, to assist in forming the curvature of the hull. All the planks were simply butted together (carvel built) and the joints were caulked with wood shavings. The iron nails themselves were bedded into caulking rings of moss, and the ends of the nails were bent over (clenched) on the inside of the frames, to make the structure secure. The ship was essentially built following celtic traditions, known from other wreck-sites (such as Blackfriars 1) but incorporated technological advances, such as a bilge-pump with bronze bearings, from the Mediterranean tradition.

The ship was originally some 25 metres in length, with a maximum beam of some 6 metres and a height to the gunwale of at least 3 metres, possibly more. It was propelled by sail, carried on a single mast of at least 13 metres in height and located approximately one third of the ships length from the bow. The mast was stepped into one of the massive floor timbers and may have been supported at deck level by a mast partner. No evidence of the sails was preserved; square sails seem to have been the norm for the region but it has been suggested that a fore-and-aft lugsail might have been more appropriate.

Finds from the site suggest that the ship may have had a small structure with a tiled roof in the aft area, which probably contained the cooking and food preparation area. The quantity of pottery and other ‘personal’ items found suggests a crew compliment of three.

Circumstances of Loss

The Guernsey ship was lost due to a fire on board, which effectively destroyed everything above the waterline. It was lost in relatively shallow water, quite close to the shore, so a number of pertinent observations may be quoted from the monograph describing the wreck, particularly with respect to the relative absence of cargo evidence:

  1. ‘The wreck may have been only two to three metres below low water mark in the third century and therefore accessible to even the most primitive salvage techniques.’
  2. ‘A totally flammable, biodegradable or buoyant cargo carried separate from the preserving pitch would leave no trace. Something very combustible burned the face of the timbers in the inter-frame spaces.’
  3. ‘The ship was probably at anchor or grounded when the fire broke out. This opens up the possibility that the cargo had already been unloaded.’
  4. ‘If a military transport role is postulated, then any troops or horses carried would probably be ashore whilst the ship was in harbour.’
  5. ‘It is unlikely that the ship was out of commission, due to the numbers of personal possessions and food remains found.’ (Rule and Monaghan, 1993)

Publication

Details of the excavation, post-excavation research and preliminary conclusions were published in 1993 as the Monograph entitled ‘A Gallo-Roman Trading Vessel from Guernsey – The Excavation and Recovery of a Third Century Shipwreck’. This was written by Margaret Rule and Jason Monaghan and published by Guernsey Museums & Galleries. The description of the ship given above is a précis of that which appears in the book. Click the image to see more details of the book; pricing and availability information may be obtained from admin@museum.guernsey.net.

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