An Elizabethan ship has been discovered in “remarkable condition” on the lake bed of a Kent quarry, one of just a handful of examples to survive from a pivotal moment in England’s seafaring history.

Workers at a quarry on the Dungeness headland were dredging a lake in April when they snagged the 16th-century timbers. As they pulled them up, the remains of the vessel’s hull came up in one piece, intact and undamaged by the movement.

Staff contacted specialists at Wessex Archaeology, a heritage services company, with news of their find and sent photos of the wreck, consisting of over 100 English oak timbers.

The experts quickly recognised its age and significance from the design and lack of iron fastenings. Wooden dowels or treenails continued to hold the structure in place more than four centuries after the timber had been felled and assembled.

Andrea Hamel, a marine archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology who has worked on the find, said the construction details were exceptionally well-preserved. “The quality of the timbers is really impressive. You can still see tool marks where the builders used adzes and saws.”

Wooden dowels or treenails continued to hold the wooden frame in place after more than four centuries
Wooden dowels or treenails continued to hold the wooden timbers in place after more than four centuries © Wessex Archaeology

Historic England, the public conservation body, released emergency funding and assigned specialist help to assess the wreck. Dendrochronology tests on samples of the wood dated the ship to between 1558 and 1580, spanning the period when Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in the Golden Hind and international maritime trade was rapidly expanding.

The Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship, which sank in 1545, is the best known surviving English ship from the Tudor era. Other examples include fragments of hull such as the Gresham ship, an armed merchant vessel discovered in the Thames Estuary in 2003.

“For anything to survive from before 1700 is so rare that it would be nationally significant,” said Hamel.

The Dungeness ship was constructed at a time when boat builders were experimenting with different techniques. It used a “carvel” design, whereby its planks’ edges were fixed flush to one another on a pre-constructed frame.

This configuration superseded the “clinker” style used across northern Europe for centuries, where overlapping planks were assembled first before later being braced from within by a frame.

Though the quarry lies 300 metres from the sea, tests on the sediment surrounding the wreck suggested it is likely to have ended its life on the coastline. Its resting place gradually moved inland as coastal deposits extended the shoreline over the following centuries.

This was fortuitous for the archaeologists, who were able to examine at close quarters a wreck that would normally have been found on the seabed, requiring the use of divers limited to short periods under water.

The ship is to be returned to the lake bed and covered in a protective layer of silt, enabling future generations — potentially with new techniques of analysis — to unlock further secrets. Having studied the timbers for a month this summer, the team took samples that Hamel hopes will narrow the dating of the vessel and may even lead to its identification.

“That would be the Holy Grail,” she said.

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