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).
A diverse heritage
The types of heritage involved include:
- submerged landscapes
- aviation crash sites
- dredged artefacts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, where non-divers can use a virtual trail.
We commission research on the condition and management of wrecks, for example for the Bartholomew Ledges protected wreck off the Isles of Scilly. The management plan for this site balances protection needs with those of the local and regional stakeholders.
Also of interest...
This page provides you with sources of information on current and past investigations of the Royal Navy’s dockyards.
At the outbreak of the First World War Great Britain was the world’s greatest naval power. It was a supremacy supported by a huge heavy engineering industry, but one challenged by the ambitions of imperial Germany and her rapidly expanding navy.
As part of the 2014-2018 Centenary, Historic England commissioned Cotswold Archaeology to assess WW1 submarine losses in England's territorial waters.
Guidance on the criteria for designating wreck sites.
Find out more about protected wreck sites, why they are protected, and how to access them.
The seas and shore around England contain an immense wealth of archaeological sites and remains.
Dive into history at a Historic England protected wreck site.