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Research Projects on Marine Archaeology

Our seas and coasts hold a rich heritage from millennia of human activity.  Read about a range of projects investigating wrecks and early sites by Historic England and partners.

An old, black and white image of ships in the Port of London, taken 1965. Covered barges in the foreground are dwarfed by huge container ships in the background.
International trade led shipping and barges to crowd the Port of London in 1965. © John Gay

A diverse heritage

Surviving remains from our coasts and seafloor include the earliest human settlement evidence from northern Europe. Numerous wrecks along with cargo and other debris bear testament to our varied marine activity, developing technologies and maritime capabilities.

Tin ingots from SS Cheerful wreck, St Ives. Blocks of rectangular copper ingots printed with historic text and images.
Tin ingots from Truro’s Carvedras tin smelter, recovered from the SS Cheerful, wrecked off St Ives, Cornwall in 1885. © Peter Williams

They reflect the increasing scale of global relationships and England’s rapid growth of 18th-20th century trade, military and imperial power as it became a major player on the world stage.

Centuries of naval competition produced many wrecked military vessels, with aerial combat latterly adding air-crash sites, especially of World War II aircraft.

Enhancing our understanding

Our marine heritage is poorly known with only a tiny proportion of our seafloor investigated. Each year new discoveries are made.

Historic England helps to make sure that these are recorded and assessed by developing protocols for reporting finds made, for example, by the Marine Aggregate Dredging and the Historic Environment: and the wave and tidal energy industries.

Historic England is also a major partner in research programmes to enhance understanding of submerged landscapes around our coasts and seas.

Historic England sponsors research on known wreck sites and has produced guidance on:

To further deepen our understanding of attributing significance to post-1840 wrecks, we commissioned consultants Fjordr to research a possible methodology for the national importance of post 1840 cargo vessels, which are a common type of wrecked vessel encountered in English waters. The study focused on the Tees area.

We have also commissioned research into understanding more about the social and economic value of the marine historic environment, to help us further promote these values.

Encouraging protection and accessibility

Historic England’s advice, for example on Marine Licensing and England’s Historic Environment, helps avoid potential damage to marine archaeology.

A Black and white images of the huge Tilbury Docks dredger as it sits in a harbour. Workmen stand on the front of the dredger watching ships pass.
To maintain harbour operations dredging is required. It is important for ports operator to be aware of where important heritage lies on the seabed to try to avoid damaging it.

Historic England also encourages access to, and enjoyment of, our marine heritage.

Crowds of members enjoy a guided tour of the Amsterdam wreck at St Leonards on Sea. The wreck, in the background, is reduced to a few weathered timbers.
Visitors enjoying a guided tour of the 1749 wreck of the Amsterdam on Bulverhythe beach, St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex. © Peter Williams

Historic England sponsors informative dive trails at some of our important shipwreck sites, accompanied by online resources to benefit divers and non-divers alike, as on the 1798 wreck of HMS Colossus in the Isles of Scilly. You can also read more about Historic England funded investigation in 2015 of the wreck of HMS Colossus.

Black and white image of a coal barge wreck, Blyth Harbour, Northumberland. The weathered timbers of the wreck in the foreground are framed by a pier receding into the background.
The wreck of a coal barge in Blyth Harbour, Northumberland, one of England’s foremost coal ports in the early to mid-20th century. © Roger J C Thomas
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