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Discovering and Understanding Marine Archaeology

Our seas and coasts hold a rich heritage from millennia of human activity. Historic England and partners investigate wrecks and underwater archaeology sites and help to discover, understand and protect this heritage.

Historic England's focus

What we do know is held in the maritime element of the National Record of the Historic Environment -maintained by Historic England, which 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 marine archaeology techniques to enhance this record.

Historic England’s marine area of responsibility for recommending heritage assets for designation or managing such sites lies within the Territorial Sea Limit of England, i.e. 12 nautical miles from shore, giving an area in extent many times that of the land. Historic England is actively involved through marine planning and we provide advice advising to Government, developers and individuals regarding the historic environment as might be found within the English inshore and offshore marine plan areas (i.e. to 200 nautical miles offshore or the median line with any adjacent maritime State).

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

A diverse heritage

The types of heritage involved include:

  • submerged landscapes
  • wrecks
  • aviation crash sites
  • dredged artefacts

Submerged heritage

Surviving remains from our coasts and seafloor include the earliest human settlement evidence from northern Europe. The present day seabed, in the Irish Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel, includes areas which were once dry land. Find out more from our page on submerged landscapes.

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

Ship and aircraft wrecks

Numerous wrecks, along with cargo and other debris bear testament to our varied marine activity, developing technologies and maritime capabilities. Centuries of naval competition produced many wrecked military vessels, with aerial combat latterly adding air-crash sites, especially of World War II aircraft.

Many of the cultural factors that influenced our development for example in trade and naval warfare are mapped through the Historic Seascape Characterisation programme covering England’s coasts and seas.

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

Making New Discoveries

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 these projects and the fact that this new information should enrich our collective knowledge and understanding is captured in National Policy Statements and the UK Marine Policy Statement.

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 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.

Enhancing our understanding

Historic England helps to make sure that new discoveries 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 is research programmes to enhance our understanding of submerged landscapes around our coasts and seas, and sponsors research on known wreck sites and produces guidance based on our research.

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.

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

Research encourages protection and accessibility

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

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


 

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