Bournemouth University

School of Conservation Sciences

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Shipwreck artefact reflects Dorset history

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The Swash Merman The Swash Merman

A rare carving of a ‘merman’ recovered by BU marine archaeologists from an ancient shipwreck off the Dorset coast is one of just 10 objects selected to reflect the history of the county.

Museums from across Dorset were invited to submit their ideas for objects to be included as part of the ‘History of the World’ project supported by the BBC and the British Museum. The curator of the Dorset County Museum then helped to select the final 10 which also includes an Iron Age longboat found in Poole Harbour and the world’s first tank now housed at the Tank Museum based in the county. 

The ‘merman’ carving is a major discovery retrieved by BU students and staff from a wreck in the Swash Channel near the entrance to Poole Harbour. The wreck first emerged in 2004 and has been dated to early 1600s. It forms the remains of a large ship of the period that is thought to have been trading with the tropics and shows the wealth of the county’s maritime connections with the rest of the world.

BU’s Marine Archaeology students, led by academic experts Dave Parham and Paola Palma from the University’s School of Conservation Sciences, have made a number of underwater expeditions to map, record and protect the wreck.

The highly-detailed carving is approximately one metre in length and probably adorned the bow or quarterdeck of the ship.  Early tests suggest that the timber it’s made of probably came from Germany or the Low Countries of Europe (Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg). Other fascinating finds from the ship include cannons, gun cartridges, shoes, a pewter jug and a sealed alum jar.

Whilst a great deal of the ship remains under the sand and water, the Swash Channel wreck remains one of the most threatened in the UK due to erosion and a non-native species of aggressive shipworm now found in British waters thanks to global warming.  

“The wreck provides our students with a unique opportunity to gain the professional experience they will need for their later careers,” said Senior Lecturer Dave Parham. “We’re currently hoping to secure funding to continue our extensive work in the Swash Channel with a view to discovering even more about its provenance and history.”

Paola Palma continues to work through a number of techniques to ensure the preservation of the wreck. “If the species of shipworm we’ve discovered on the Swash Channel Wreck continues to spread it poses a major threat to all submerged wooden structures around the British coast, including jetties and piers, as well as our underwater heritage,” she warned.

Palma previously recorded the same invasive creature on the historic wreck of the Mary Rose in Portsmouth. A similar problem is facing Venice, where a collaborative project is in development with a number of organisations – including BU – to evaluate the best options for replacing old and degraded wooden pilings in the historic Italian city.

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