SALCOMBE CANNON SITE
- Heritage Category:
- Maritime Wreck
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Location Description:
- Off Moor Sand, near Shag Rock, Devon
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Location Description:
- Off Moor Sand, near Shag Rock, Devon
- National Grid Reference:
- SX 75531 36147
Finds of cannon and timber fragments, which together with other finds (including a rich assemblage of gold artefacts) suggest a possible mid-seventeenth century wreck site, perhaps centred around 1636 to 1640. Subsequent artefacts of Bronze Age date, largely weapons, have also recently been recovered from the same location, but would appear to relate to a possible earlier wreck in the same area, rather than directly associated with the seventeenth century wreck.
The site was first described in 1992 by divers from the South-west Maritime Archaeology Group (SWMAG) as a cannon site with nothing else visible. When divers returned to the site in 1995, seabed levels had changed exposing a rich assemblage of gold artefacts. Earrings, pendants, tiny gold ingots, and over 400 gold coins were recovered. The gold derives from Morocco, and dating of the coins suggests that the ship was lost in the mid-seventeenth century. All recovered artefacts were declared to the Receiver of Wreck, and are now held by the British Museum as the largest assemblage of Islamic coins ever found in the UK.
At this stage it is difficult to suggest the origin of the vessel. The overall assemblage includes shipboard items consistent with a NW European vessel but further information needs to be collected from the site before a North African vessel can be ruled out, as the initial analysis of the coins at the Coins and Medals Department (MD) of the British Museum indicates a North African origin. Although only a proportion of the total assemblage has been studied so far the dates range from 1578 to 1635 with Marrakech as the dominant mint: Historical evidence suggests there was regular trade in gold from North Africa at this time.
In 2004, a Bronze Age assemblage of swords, rapiers, palstave axe heads, an adze, and a gold bracelet was recovered from the designated area. These artefacts may be associated with the nearby designated Moor Sand Bronze Age site.
Designation Order: No 2536, 1997
Made: 23rd October 1997
Laid before Parliament: 24th October 1997
Coming into force: 24th October 1997
Protected area: 250 metres within 50 12.696 N 003 44.679 W
No part of the restricted area lies above the high-water mark of ordinary spring tides.
Documentary History: The seventeenth-century site was first discovered in 1992, and even though nothing has been found of the ship itself, in 1994 following a shift in the sand, divers found evidence of her cargo. Gold coins and ingots, jewellery as well as fragments of pottery, pewter and lead weights were subsequently recovered. The coins and jewellery are the largest assembly of Islamic gold in an English context, giving dating parameters. The pottery includes Dutch Delftware, Bellarmine and Low Countries redware. The identity of the vessel remains a mystery: it may have been English but Friesland coin suggests a Dutch vessel. The Moroccan coins date from 1510 to 1636, the latter providing a terminus post quem for the date of loss. Taken in tandem with a Baroque Dutch pipe of the mid-seventeenth century, the date of the wreck is postulated as circa 1640.
The SWMAG divers who found the vessel believe that the seventeenth century vessel was a Barbary pirate and that its intended cargo was English slaves, bound for North Africa. The British Museum, while initially sceptical, has displayed the artefacts with a label acknowledging the possibility. Only one piece of oak has been recovered despite meticulous surveys; tests on the timber indicate North African origin. Two of the team believe the vessel to be a xebec, which was a slim swift vessel either sailed or rowed, used by Barbary pirates. The unusual scatter of the cannon, suggesting only being mounted fore and aft, means this is a possibility; however, cannon were also positioned fore and aft on contemporary European warships, broadside cannon only coming in after the first Anglo-Dutch war in the 1650s.
A BBC 'Timewatch' programme entitled 'White Slaves, Pirate Gold' was broadcast 10th January 2003. It is claimed that the programme lacked archaeological integrity and that the claims involved artistic licence. The British Museum stated there was no evidence for links with piracy and is most likely to be a Dutch vessel. 85 per cent of the artefacts recovered are of English or Dutch origin.
The terminus post quem is suggested as 1642 but the origin of the vessel remains unclear. The overall assemblage includes shipboard items consistent with a vessel of north-west European origin, but the possibility that the vessel was North African cannot be eliminated, since the coins are thought to be of North African origin.
Bronze Age artefacts from the south-east of the Designated Area of the wreck site were discovered during the 2004 season and it is assumed that there are two separate assemblages.
Archaeological History: From the early 1980s until 1994 the site had been visited numerous times by visiting divers. In 1992, the site was described to the ADU as a 'cannon site with nothing else visible'. However, in 1994, the SWMAG discovered a gold coin and by the end of the dive four had been found and recorded. As a result, over the next two years, a team of 13 divers recorded 430 Islamic gold coins dating from 1510 - 1636 and Moroccan jewellery of the same period along with pottery from the Low Countries and Somerset and a bone handle.
The site is situated in Salcombe Bay on the westerly side of Bolt Tail between Rickham Rock and Gammon Head in some 18-20 metres of water. It is situated in a tidal run that can reach 2-3 knots on spring tides. The topography of the site is made up of deep gullies with no regular symmetry and a depth range of between 3 and 6 metres and a plateau area in between. All areas are covered with hard rock with a smattering of shale and small pockets of sediment and sand. The seabed geology is confirmed to be the local metamorphic rock, similar to the coastal topography. Round cobbles were also observed to be loose on the seabed. These were initially thought to be ballast from the Bronze Age wreck site, but the identification has now been revised to local stone.
The coins come from the Sa'did Sharifs dynasty and the jewellery was largely in pieces but is of designs still produced in North Africa today. It is thought they may have been intended for melting down for bullion. A lump of congealed beans was also recovered which had survived in a container. Amongst the gold coins was a single copper coin of Friesland dated 1627, which may suggest a Dutch source. The initial analysis of the coins at the Coins and Medals Department of the British Museum indicates a North African origin. The total assemblage has not been studied but the date range is 1578 to 1635, with Marrakech as the dominant mint. The Islamic jewellery is also thought to be of Moroccan origin and there are also gold finger ingots. The ingots and jewellery are deliberately cut, suggesting that it was being traded as units of gold or intended to be melted down: historical evidence points to a context of regular trade in gold from North Africa during this period. The artefacts have been acquired by the British Museum.
Although 10 cannon, four swivel guns and three anchors have also been recorded, it is difficult to estimate the size of the vessel, or to interpret whether the site is the actual position of loss or the "resting place" of a vessel wrecked elsewhere as there is no evidence of structural remains. The cause of loss could have been due to being embayed on the lee shore of the Moor Sands in south-westerly conditions, or having grounded upon the nearby reefs, or both.
From 2002, the team also discovered, recorded and recovered a number of Bronze Age artefacts. Originating in France, these date to the Penard period (1200-1000 BC) and are therefore contemporary with the assemblage form the designated Moor Sand site. One item, a strumento con immanicatura a cannone, merits further attention for although its purpose is unknown, it is known to have originated in Sicily and is therefore indicative of complex trade routes used during the Middle Bronze Age.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
- Legacy System number:
- Legacy System:
- AMIE - Wrecks
Books and journals
'Devon Archaeological Society newsletter' in Devon Archaeological Society: No 69, (1998)
Salcombe Cannon Site - Interim Report 1997,
Salcombe Cannon Site, Devon: Designated Site Assessment: Archaeological Report, (2006)
This site is designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 as it is or may prove to be the site of a vessel lying wrecked on or in the sea bed and, on account of the historical, archaeological or artistic importance of the vessel, or of any objects contained or formerly contained in it which may be lying on the sea bed in or near the wreck, it ought to be protected from unauthorised interference. Protected wreck sites are designated by Statutory Instrument. The following information has been extracted from the relevant Statutory Instrument.
Information provided under the Statutory Instrument heading below forms part of the official record of a protected wreck site. Information provided under other headings does not form part of the official record of the designation. It has been compiled by Historic England to aid understanding of the protected wreck site.
Statutory Instruments: 1997/2536
End of official listing