A nit comb which is has lost most of the teeth. The remnants of the teeth show how one side would have been fine-toothed, and the other side had wider spread teeth.
This ivory nit comb was identified as being made from the tusk of an African elephant. © Historic England Archive. Photographer credit James O Davies.
This ivory nit comb was identified as being made from the tusk of an African elephant. © Historic England Archive. Photographer credit James O Davies.

The London Wreck: A Kaleidoscope of Specialists, Materials and Artefacts

Scientific analysis of the archaeological assemblage from the London has revealed a wealth of information about life aboard a 17th century Royal Naval vessel.

The warship London blew up and sank in the Thames Estuary, off Southend-on-Sea on 7th March 1665. The London was a Second Rate 'Large Ship' built in Chatham in 1656. The ship suddenly blew up when being mobilised for the second Anglo-Dutch war, and over 300 lives were lost. This event was famously recorded by Samuel Pepys in his diary. The protected wreck has been on the Heritage at Risk register since 2009. Maritime archaeological investigations have resulted in the recovery of over 700 finds from the wreck. These include human and animal remains, ordnance, navigational equipment, fixtures and fittings, personal belongings and supplies.

The collaboration between various specialists has been a key component in unlocking crucial information pertaining to naval warfare and operations, but also tells the story of life on board a warship in the 17th century.

More than 20 specialists have worked on the material recovered from the London wreck. The results of the excavation and the post-excavation assessments and analyses are soon to be published in a monograph with the working title ‘The wreck of the London: Archaeological investigations of a 17th century warship, 2014–2016’

Material science: leather, glass and metals

The contents of the London were buried in silt for much of the past 355 years and leather and wood items, which normally do not survive well on land, were beautifully preserved because of reduced oxygen levels. Conservators spotted different coloured patches on some of the leather objects, and this was investigated using a non-destructive method of chemical analysis called XRF (X-ray Fluorescence). It confirmed that areas of gold and some red paint survived on a leather book cover, showing that the book cover was originally an elaborate and costly item. The red paint was the mercury-based pigment vermillion, but this was very expensive so it was often mixed with cheaper materials and in this case it had been mixed with red lead oxide.

In the mid-17th century when the London was lost, most windows and bottles were made of common green glass.

Colourless glass was reserved for selected objects, like the best drinking glasses, lenses and mirrors. Remarkable survivals from the London include several examples. A small pocket sundial compass contained a colourless glass lens, which still magnifies today, and a rectangle of colourless plate glass with a bevelled front edge may be from a mirror, now lacking its metallic reflective coating.

Many brass and pewter objects survived in good condition, including instruments, buttons, spoons and tiny dress pins. The navigational instruments were all made from brass, and included chart dividers, calipers and the case and gnomon (the part that casts a shadow) of the pocket sundial compass.

A pewter urethral syringe testifies to the medical equipment on board, and would have been used in the treatment of venereal diseases, by administering mercury, although none was detected in this example.

Many spoons were recovered, some made from brass and tinplated to give them a silver appearance, and others made from pewter.

Although historic pewter often contains some lead, only small amounts were permitted in objects used for eating and drinking, and chemical analysis found that the manufacturers of these spoons had abided by the regulations for the most part (Stroebele and Schuster 2019). Interestingly one spoon carries the mark of its owner, so this was perhaps a personal possession.

Pottery and tile

The London produced an assemblage of fifteen individual pots, two bricks and seven tiles. English products include fragments of redware cooking pots and a whiteware jar. More common is Frechen stoneware from the Rhineland, including a narrow-necked jug in the familiar Bartmann style (depicting a bearded face and often referred to as Bellarmine) and a virtually complete small, plain jug. From further afield, three Spanish, Seville-type olive jars are also represented.

All the types present are common finds on shipwrecks of this date and would have been available in London. The stoneware and olive jars were probably traded from North Sea ports, showing the continuation of commercial contacts even at a time of fluctuating relations with England’s neighbours. All the pots found on the London wreck were associated with the storage or preparation of food, or with drinking.

The bricks and plain tiles, similarly, are from the galley, where they would have lined the timber floor and wall against the heat of the stove. Decorated tinglazed tiles, including one showing a fox, may have been situated in a more public space, probably occupied by a senior officer. This is a small assemblage but it compares well with others of a similar date.

Human remains

The human bones from the London were not articulated skeletons but had been jumbled together by water movement. They comprise 34 bones from a minimum of five people. All were probably male. Most were adults, but the youngest were in their late teens. The heights of two could be calculated, at 170 centimetres and 176 centimetres. These are about the same as heights of 17th-century London men, but a bit taller than the Tudor sailors from the Mary Rose. The mean height of young men today is 178 centimetres.

The most unexpected finding was evidence of infectious disease, in the form of five small pits on the inside of the frontal bone (forehead) of one of the skulls.

These lesions resemble those caused by tuberculosis. To try and confirm this, a DNA analysis was conducted for traces of the bacteria that cause the disease. This was unsuccessful, but that may just mean that DNA did not survive in this case – many ancient DNA analyses fail for this or other reasons. Bone lesions take time to develop because infection normally spreads from pre-existing lesions in soft tissue (in tuberculosis these are often in the lungs), so this man must have been ill for some time. In the cramped conditions aboard ship, contagious disease would always have been a potential threat, and lesions in the human skeletal remains show that chronic sickness was indeed present amongst the crew of the London.

Animal Bone Remains

Only a few animal bones were recovered from the London, including from cattle, sheep/goat and ribs from similar size mammals. They may derive from fresh or preserved food cargo. The cattle bones include a humerus with cutmarks and a sawn pelvis. Cattle pelves and ribs formed part of meat ‘pieces’ in casked meat supplies documented in historic victualling records and in assemblages from other wreck sites (eg Coy 2005; Migaud 2011). Access to preserved and fresh provisions would have varied by status of crew members as well as voyage duration and itinerary.

A double-sided comb was made of African elephant ivory, with species identified by ZooMS (Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry, which uses collagen or other proteins to identify animals). The manufacture from ivory probably indicates the owner’s high status. The comb, with a set of closely spaced teeth on one side and more widely separated teeth on the other, would have been used for grooming and personal hygiene, by removing parasites such as nits and lice (Schuster forthcoming).

The value of collaborative research in deepening knowledge of a crucial period in history

Access to artefacts by various specialists is crucial to post-excavation work and a carefully planned program of sample taking, analysis and conservation was put in place to ensure a smooth workflow. This project has been co-ordinated by Cotswold Archaeology and involved Historic England, external and freelance specialists, as well as the licensing team for the London wreck.

Scientific analysis of the archaeological assemblage from the London has revealed a wealth of information about life aboard a 17th-century Royal Navy vessel. Some evidence, relating to navigation or provisioning, has to do with the general running of the vessel. In addition, the presence of medical equipment and a comb shows concern with health care and personal hygiene.

Other aspects of the assemblage have allowed glimpses of more personal details of everyday life. Differences in quality and in the materials used for some of the more personal items perhaps indicate variability in wealth and status among those who used them.

In the wider context of the mid-17th century, a time when the British navy changed and developed, the study of the assemblage from the London will contribute to our understanding of that crucial period in naval history.

About the authors

Sarah Paynter

Senior Materials Scientist at Historic England

Sarah studied Natural Sciences and worked in industry before obtaining a DPhil in Archaeological Science. She is now a materials scientist for Historic England and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. She uses analytical techniques to identify and investigate a wide range of heritage materials from buildings, collections and archaeological and maritime sites in the UK, from the Bronze Age to the twentieth century.

Duncan H. Brown BA FSA MCIfA

Head of Archaeological Archives at Historic England

Duncan is Head of Archaeological Archives and a specialist in medieval and later pottery. He is a former President of the Medieval Pottery Research Group and currently Chair of the Society for Museum Archaeology and a Member of Council for the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Simon Mays PhD

Human Skeletal Biologist at Historic England

In addition to his role with human remains at Historic England, Simon is also a Visiting Lecturer at the Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton, and an Honorary Fellow at the Faculty of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.

Polydora Baker

Senior Zooarchaeologist at Historic England

Polydora studied anthropology and archaeology before completing a PhD in zooarchaeology (UCL). She manages the Historic England Zooarchaeology Reference Collection and the Professional Zooarchaeology Group, and advises on recovery and analysis of animal bone assemblages from underwater and terrestrial sites. She is currently researching post-Roman and early medieval occupation at Tintagel, and post-Medieval bone floors at Wrest Park.

Jörn Schuster MA Dr phil FSA MCIfA

Archaeologist at 'ARCHÆOLOGICALsmallFINDS'

Jörn is a consultant archaeologist, finds specialist and translator. He was a deputy county archaeologist and museum director in Northern Germany prior to joining English Heritage as a finds specialist at Fort Cumberland. Before setting up his own company, 'ARCHÆOLOGICALsmallFINDS', in 2012, he was a post-excavation manager for Wessex Archaeology and Cotswold Archaeology. He has worked on assemblages from all metal-using periods up to the modern period. You can find more of Jörn's work at his Academia profile.

Angela Middleton

Senior Archaeological Conservator at Historic England

Angela holds a degree in archaeological conservation from the University of Applied Sciences, Berlin, and an MSc in Maritime Conservation Science from the University of Portsmouth. She joined Historic England as an Archaeological Conservator in 2007. Here she is responsible for advising on and undertaking research and investigative conservation on material retrieved from land and marine sites. She has a special interest in the conservation of waterlogged organic materials.

Further information

Coy, J, Hamilton-Dyer, S with Oxley, I 2005 ‘Meat and fish: the bone evidence’, in Before the Mast: Life and Death aboard the Mary Rose, by Gardiner, J with Allen, M (eds). The Archaeology of the Mary Rose, 4, 564-588

Hazell, Z, Aitken, E 2019 The London protected wreck, The Nore, off Southend-on-Sea, Thames Estuary, Essex: Wood identifications and recording of wooden remains recovered between 2014 and 2016. Historic England Research Report 15/2019. Historic England: Swindon

Migaud, P 2011 ‘A First Approach to Links between Animals and Life on Board Sailing Vessels (1500–1800)’. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (2011) 40.2: 283–292 doi: 10.1111/j.1095-9270.2011.00315.x

Schuster, J., forthcoming, ‘The assemblage of small finds from the London’, in Walsh, M. (ed.) The wreck of the London: Archaeological investigations of a 17th century warship, 2014–2016. [working title] Cotswold Archaeology Monograph Series

Stroebele, F, Schuster, J 2019 The London Protected Wreck, The Nore, off Southend-on-Sea, Thames Estuary, Essex: Compositional analyses of copper alloy and pewter objects. Historic England Research Report 4/2019. Historic England: Swindon

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Published 17 July 2020

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