Archaeologists Hunting WWII Relics Accidentally Unearthed An Incredible 16th-Century Shipwreck

It’s April 2017, and members of a local archaeology group called Timescapes are rooting around on a British shore. Their mission? To find and document the remains of WWII defense structures. But what they actually find is something far, far older.

The south-east coast of the U.K., including the county of Kent, has some gorgeous beaches. Whether shingle or sand, they epitomize the benign beauty of an old-fashioned day at the seaside. Waves gently lap, the smell of fish and chips fills the air, beach huts abound and memories are made or revisited. But it wasn’t always so peaceful here.

During WWII, Kent took a battering. Its proximity to both London and the European mainland, along with its miles and miles of coastline meant that the county played a big part in the conflict. From getting peppered with flying rocket bombs, to being used as a major training ground and staging post for the military, the place is steeped in war history.

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Moreover, Operation Fortitude, a decoy invasion to trick the Nazis, was launched from the Kent port of Dover in 1944. It sought to persuade the Germans that the Allies’ counterattack would land in Calais, France, just across the English Channel. Meanwhile, 185,000 troops were successfully deployed to Normandy.

But Kent’s importance to the U.K. goes much further back than WWII. In fact, the county played a vital role in the development of Britain’s maritime history. As early as 1567 the town of Chatham was being used a Royal Dockyard. Queen Elizabeth I herself even visited it in 1573. And the likes of HMS Victory, built at the yard and helmed by one Horatio Nelson, really cemented the country’s – and the county’s – naval prowess.

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The dockyard in Chatham remained in use for over four centuries. Such was its place in the British psyche that it even appeared, albeit in disguise, in several Charles Dickens novels. The quintessential British author cemented the yard’s place in history. And although it’s no longer the powerhouse that it once was, the site does house a maritime museum and even once had a Dickens theme park.

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The county boasts more recent history, too. Those miles and miles of beautiful coastline presented something of a problem when it came to defense. From Dover, it’s just about 20 miles across the channel to the French mainland. And Kentish beaches are full of bays and inlets perfect for enemy landings. During WWII the coast needed a military presence in case of invasion, and the form those defenses took have themselves become pieces of archaeological history.

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The British Government came up with a near-indestructible fortification that could be quickly built and remain permanently in place along any part of the coast. Known as pillboxes, these defenses were of concrete construction, with openings for guns to be pointed through. However, the passage of time is an enemy that nothing can defeat, and today, many of the boxes have been lost.

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However, as is often the case with history, ‘lost’ doesn’t have to mean ‘utterly gone’. And it’s this idea that had Timescapes members out on Tankerton beach in 2017. They were looking for any remnants of coastal defenses that might have survived 70-odd years of coastal erosion. Instead, they found the remains of something centuries older than a pillbox.

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Sticking out of the mud at low tide were the telltale pieces of timber that signify a shipwreck. And an old one, at that. Yes, what the amateur archaeologists had stumbled upon was a vessel that had been built more than 400 years ago. The group knew it had found something remarkable and called in the experts at Historic England. The organization, which helps protect important sites in the U.K., commissioned an excavation by Wessex Archaeology. It also requested a Protection Order for the site from the government.

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In 2018 that excavation finally took place. It wasn’t an easy task, however. The vessel is only visible at low tide, meaning that archaeologists and volunteers could only work for a few hours a day. Nevertheless, the structure that they were able to uncover was incredibly well-preserved. Thanks to the surrounding mud, large amounts of the ship had survived. Measuring roughly 40 feet long and 16 feet wide, pieces of the galley, ceiling planks and a pulley were easily recognizable.

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Subsequent testing of the wood confirmed some timber from the ship came from a tree felled in 1531. Experts concluded the vessel was likely to have been built in the late 16th or early 17th  century. It was most likely a craft with a single mast, used for commercial purposes and weighing up to 200 tons.

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But the ship wasn’t all that the excavators dug up. There were, in fact, a few non-boat-related items that survived the centuries as well. These included a pair of leather shoes with intact stitching, a plum stone and a wooden spoon. And as for exactly what this vessel was doing off the Kent coast in the first place, it’s probably got a lot to do with a substance called copperas.

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Also known as the rather unpleasant-sounding green vitriol, copperas was used in both the production of ink and the setting of dyes in textiles. The nearby town of Whitstable had a very successful copperas works which was established in 1565. Maritime archaeologist Mark Dunkley speculated thus to website Kent Live, “Perhaps this ship was transporting barrels of copperas to the rest of England.”

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Dunkley went on, “Samples of the mud from the very bottom [of the ship] show sediment from other places, showing where it may have traded. It shows the role that Whitstable and Tankerton could have played in the expansion of the British Empire.” Despite its importance, now that excavations are over, the vessel has been allowed to slip back into the mud.

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But not before the ancient wreck met 21st-century tech. During the 2018 excavations, volunteer Tom Banbury was on hand to document the find in a very modern way. He used a drone! Capturing images from above, the ship could be seen in its full glory for the first time in four centuries.

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Tankerton isn’t the only place in southern England that’s home to recently discovered shipwrecks, though. Not too far away, in East Sussex, another vessel emerged in 2016 and was spotted by a local. Off the coast at Camber Sands lie the remains of an enormous ship. Measuring 140 feet long and around 30 feet across, Historic England classify it as a ‘heavily built’ vessel. Interestingly, they believe that the wreck is actually The Avon, which sank in the area in 1852.

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Historic England’s Protection Order extends to the Camber Sands vessel as well, meaning that these pieces of maritime history will be preserved for years to come. Duncan Wilson, CEO of Historic England said, “These two very different ships are equally fascinating… When the sands shift, and the tide is right, visitors to these beaches can catch glimpse of these incredible wrecks.”

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Heritage Minister Michael Ellis agreed. “The Tankerton and Camber Sands wrecks are a marvelous discovery that will give us another opportunity to uncover more about what life was like at sea hundreds of years ago,” he told the Historic England website. Both vessels were found by amateurs, and it’s somehow gratifying that history just doesn’t wait for the experts to show up.

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“From the volunteers’ point of view, it was a pretty special time,” Kate Forwood told the Wessex Archaeology website following the excavation. And for Wilson, the local community’s inclusion made the finds all the sweeter. “I’m delighted that volunteers are so involved,” he told the Historic England website in 2018. So, next time you take a trip to the beach, keep your eyes peeled; you never know what you might find…

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