Beautiful Medieval Gravestones Found Among Oldest Shipwreck In England


A 13th-century shipwreck recently discovered off the south coast of England is one of the oldest shipwrecks ever found in the country. To ensure this sunken fragment of history lives on, the incredibly rare shipwreck has just been granted the highest level of protection by the UK government, according to Historic England.

The 750-year-old "Mortar Wreck" was discovered in Poole Bay in Dorset back in the summer of 2020 by local sailors and has recently been studied in a new investigation led by Bournemouth University.

Along with featuring an incredibly well-preserved hull, the shipwreck was found to still be holding original cargo, including a cooking caldron, pots, drinking mugs, and a collection of ornate gravestones. 

Diver viewing a decorated Purbeck stone gravestone on the 13th century Mortar Wreck, Poole Bay, Dorset.
Diver viewing a decorated Purbeck gravestone on the 13th century Mortar Wreck. Image credit: Bournemouth University

Despite the centuries that have passed, the gravestones are still beautifully adorned with deep carvings with their chisel marks still clearly visible. One of the slabs features a wheel-headed cross, typical of the early 13th-century CE, while the other displays a splayed arm cross, most often seen in the mid-13th century CE. 

The gravestones were fashioned out of Purbeck stone, a form of limestone that’s quarried on the Isle of Purbeck on the south coast of England. Formed from the crushed remains of freshwater snails, this stone is highly polished, making it an ideal material to craft lavish gravestones and Gothic architecture. This material was sought-after stuff in the 13th century and was exported from England across Europe. 

Tree ring dating of the wrecks’ timbers indicates that the wood used to construct the hull came from Irish oak trees that were cut down 1242-1265 CE, during the reign of King Henry III. 

This is exceptionally old for a shipwreck – in fact, you'll be incredibly fortunate to come across any shipwreck that dates before the 18th century due to the harsh conditions of the sea. Evidence of a small number of bronze age shipwrecks have previously been discovered, but their timbers have long eroded away. This means the Mortar Wreck is likely the oldest wreck in England whose hull is still intact. 

“Very few 750-year-old ships remain for us to be able to see today and so we are extremely lucky to have discovered an example as rare as this and in such good condition. A combination of low-oxygenated water, sand, and stones has helped preserve one side of the ship, and the hull is clearly visible,” Tom Cousins, Maritime Archaeologist at Bournemouth University, said in a statement.

The Mortar Wreck was recently given high-level protection under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 along with the 16th century Shingles Bank Wreck NW96 and 17th century Shingles Bank Wreck NW68, both discovered off the Needles Channel near the Isle of Wight. While not nearly as old as the Mortar Wreck, two wrecks feature an array of loot, ranging from cannons and cannonballs to a large anchor and a bunch of lead ingots.

Even older shipwrecks have been found elsewhere in the world's oceans. In 2018, cutting-edge imaging of the seafloor revealed a 2,400-year-old shipwreck laying at the bottom of the Black Sea. As it stands, this 23-meter (75-foot) ancient Greek merchant's vessel is the oldest shipwreck ever discovered intact.

Cannon found on the NW68 wreck discovered off the Isle of Wight.

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