This historic wreck was first discovered in 1984 during an archaeological survey of the seabed off Yarmouth, during the Isle of Wight Maritime Heritage Project. Initially only a few centimetres of timber were visible beneath the seabed, but not long afterwards three pewter plates associated with the wreckage and dated to the 16th century were also found. It was soon realised that this was an important site and the wreck was designated as a Protected Wreck site. The site is marked by a large yellow buoy, visible east of Yarmouth Pier.
Archaeological investigation followed, including survey and excavation. The project team included a mixture of professional and volunteer archaeologists, and their work began to reveal more about the ship structure and the finds associated with the wreck.
Exactly how much of the ship remains buried within the seabed sediments is unknown. The trenches excavated revealed that substantial timbers survive, especially around the stern. However, towards the centre of the site the hard clay seabed rises up and has meant that less of the ship survives here. By carefully choosing where to excavate research questions about the site could be answered. This work has revealed that the Yarmouth Roads Wreck was once a thirty metre long ship, which was a large vessel for the 16th century.
Excavation soon revealed an impressive array of artefacts; bronze, pewter and pottery were particularly common finds. Almost intact pottery jugs were recovered; these are black in colour but would once have been bright blues and greens. These finds all began to point to a Mediterranean origin for the Yarmouth Roads Wreck. Other finds recovered from the site include a bone comb, a bronze pestle and a rare bronze cannon which is now on display at the Trust’s Shipwreck Centre and Maritime Museum, Arreton Barns, Isle of Wight.
Identifying the Ship
Work above the water included research into the possible identity of the wreck. Numerous archives were visited to view documents in search of a written record of the loss of a 16th century ship. Eventually, in the High Court of Admiralty Records, a reference was found to a Spanish ship wrecked off Yarmouth.
The Santa Lucia was sailing to Flanders in 1567 with a cargo of wool. The ship ‘by fortune p[er]ished and was lost in the seas thwart of yarmouthe in the Isle of wighte’. The cargo was reported to have been salvaged. Could this be the Yarmouth Roads wreck?
The principal underwater archaeological investigation of the Yarmouth Roads Wreck took place between 1984 and 1989. The costs required to undertake such a project are high, and funds have not been available since to continue active investigation of the site. However, the site has been monitored to check that the seabed sediments covering the wreck have remained stable.
In 2004 the Maritime Archaeology Trust (then the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology) became the Licensee for the Yarmouth Roads Protected Wreck Site. The initial project had been one of the driving forces behind the formation of the HWTMA, so we are pleased to be actively involved in the site.
Diving on the wreck site in 2005 showed that there are some timbers visible on the seabed. Areas of the site were covered in sand bags at the end of the 1980’s excavation work. The sandbags were still visible, although some of are now torn and degraded. Photographs of the site were taken; these will help with monitoring the site between seasons by providing a visual record of the wreck remains.
In 2009 an inspection of the Yarmouth Roads Protected wreck site was completed in conjunction with the Solent Marine Heritage Assets Project. The diver survey revealed that the wreck site remains relatively stable. No noticeable changes were observed in this monitoring dive compared to the last HWTMA dive on site in 2005, with the sandbags covering the site remaining in a similar state of degradation. Only limited amounts of wooden structure are visible above the seabed. The Solent Marine Heritage Assests Yarmouth Roads Site Report is available to download for more information.
Further diving in June 2010 confirmed there had been little change to the site in the preceeding year. In addition to monitoring, efforts are in progress to raise funds to undertake an archive audit for the site as a first step towards publication.
Between 2015 and 2018 the Maritime Archaeology Trust began working together with the ForSEAdiscovery: Forest Resources for Iberian Empires: Ecology and Globalization in the Age of Discovery project, a Marie Curie Initial Training Network funded through the European Union Framework 7 program to investigate the Yarmouth Road timbers in detail.
One of the project’s aims was to reconstruct past Iberian forests and how shipbuilding from the 16th-18th centuries maybe have impacted them. Therefore, a series of known Iberian ships or shipwrecks with surviving hull timbers is necessary to provide information on the raw wood material used in ship construction.
The shipwreck at Yarmouth presented an ideal case study as a supposed Spanish ship dating to the 16th century. The ForSEAdiscovery partnership provided the opportunity to approach the site with updated research questions and support with which to answer them.
Site investigations of this shipwreck in 2015 and 2016 enabled a sampling programme to be undertaken. Resulting information has increased understanding of the ship itself and its wider socio-economic, political, environmental, and even philosophical contexts during a period of rapid and widespread change. This vessel’s selection for inclusion within this multi-partner international project served to underscore the global research value of its remains.
Work on the site helped develop the publication ‘Shipwrecks and provinence‘, which is available to download from ArchaeoPress. Further digital archive information is available from Archaeology Data Service.