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Discovering our Marine Heritage

This page describes in summary our understanding of the nature and extent of the archaeological evidence of our past, which lies in the seas around England and the ways in which we set out to find those heritage assets that remain undiscovered.

Despite many decades of exploration, recreation, trade, warfare, communication and the exploitation of resources, we know remarkably little about archaeological sites in our seas.  

What we do know is held in the National Record of the Historic Environment and has often relied on chance finds in the past.  In recent years we have been able to organise specific research projects to survey and investigate our seabed using the techniques of marine archaeology to enhance this record.

Historic England’s marine area of responsibility lies out to the Territorial Limit of England, 12 nautical miles from shore, giving an area in extent many times that of the land.  

Only in exceptional and specific circumstances, such as marine planning and advising Government, will we engage in waters outside of that area.

A diver shining a torch on an artefact on the HMS Invincible wreck site
A licensed archaeological diver recording an artefact on the Protected Historic Wreck of HMS Invincible 1758 (Credit: Michael Pitts/Pascoe Archaeology Services)

The present day seabed, in the North Sea and the English Channel, now includes areas which were once dry land.  With the melting of the last ice caps over the United Kingdom, the sea levels rose to create submerged landscapes.

Sea level and coastline change has occurred repeatedly in the past over thousands of years, so it is important to recognise that archaeological sites and evidence can also be discovered by coastal survey as well as marine research activities.

Other major categories of historic asset in the sea include wrecks, both shipwrecks  and crashed aircraft. Many of the cultural factors that influenced our development are mapped in the Historic Seascape Characterisations covering England’s coasts and seas.

Investigating the seabed has involved the techniques of marine archaeology  and archaeologists also take advantage of other sciences such as marine geology and dating.  

With the growth in seabed development, such as the offshore renewables sector, important information can be gained from surveys carried out for marine planning  purposes.  

New knowledge can also come from both chance discoveries and voluntary archaeological activities by divers and, on Protected Historic Wreck Sites , through the work of Licensees.

 A stylised painting of the wrecking of a Danish or Viking fleet in Swanage Bay in AD 877
Conjectural illustration of the wrecking of the large Danish or Viking fleet in Swanage Bay in AD 877 © Historic England
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