This is a protected wreck site off West Prawle, Devon in position 50 12.741N 03 44.756W. There is a 300m exclusion zone
This site at Salcombe contains the remains of a 17th century armed trading ship whose origin has not been identified. The finds on the site are very unusual and seem to indicate a cargo from North African, however the other items are consistent with an origin in the Low Countries, probably Holland. This may provide evidence of trade connections with North Africa via the Low Countries or even represent an Islamic merchant ship, previously unknown in UK waters.
The artefacts date to the mid-17th century and we know that there was regular trade in gold from North Africa at this time. Only one piece of timber has been found on the site, though it is possible that more ship structure may be located.
A group of Bronze Age finds have also been located on the site. This is particularly important as its location is adjacent to the Bronze Age site of Moorsands. As these finds are from a different period, it would suggest more than one Bronze Age ship met its end here.
Just to add to the mystique of the site, thousands of bricks have been found and have been identified as coming from a ketch, the “Lord Napier” that sank in the area.
In April 1995 SWMAG did what most divers dream of – they found sunken treasure.
A dive planned in the Erme Estuary had been aborted due to the sea state and rather than abandon the weekend, the team decided to measure the cannon on the Salcombe Cannon Site; little did anyone know what would be discovered on this dive or where it would lead.
Discovery of the gold
On returning from his first dive Ron Howell told the guys in the boat “Get hold of my glove, I’ve got a flaming fortune in it!”; he had found 3 gold coins, a finger ingot and pieces of jewelry. The rest is history.
SWMAG dived in secret for the next 2 years during which time the site was surveyed, a full site plan drawn, and additional artefacts recovered. In 1997 SWMAG declared their find to the Receiver of Wreck and the now defunct Archaeological Diving Unit. What the team declared included the largest collection of Moroccan gold coins outside of Morocco itself – 447 of them – dating from the late 1500’s to the mid 1630’s. The assemblage also included gold finger ingots, gold jewellery, Dutch pottery and coins, and a jar of beans from North Africa to name just a few of the other artefacts.
The site was protected by the Protection of Wrecks (Designation No. 4) Order 1997 and the British Museum acquired the assemblage where from time to time it is on display. Contrary to popular belief, members of SWMAG did not profit from the award made; the money going back into the continuing work on the site.
In early 2002 two members of the team found a pot handle, an adze and a steel yard weight approximately 100 metres to the south-east of the known site. The area had been identified as potentially of interest following a magnetometer survey the previous year.In September the same year Icon films visited the site to collect footage for the BB2 Timewatch program “White Slaves, Pirate Gold” (this was the opening program of the 2003 Timewatch series). Also present on site were the ADU who conducted a multibeam sonar and caesium magnetometer survey of the site. The multibeam sonar provided a 3D image of the site and effectively provided an underwater map. This made identifying areas of work and locations of artefacts much easier and has increased the productivity of time spent on site immeasurably.
In 2005 Wessex Archaeology, as the diving contractor for English Heritage, conducted a thorough magnetometer survey over the site and surrounding area, and identified a number of anomalies that were thought to be of archaeological significance. SWMAG is using these to instigate searches as and when new areas are surveyed.
It had been thought that Henley BS-AC discovered the Salcombe Cannon Site in 1994 when they found 3 cannon on a dive. In 2007 Duncan Grey of Henley Branch kindly showed SWMAG his log book from the dives of 1994 (SWMAG is very grateful to Duncan for sharing this information); the entries for the dives only served to deepen the mystery. The marks taken at the time are approximately 200 metres south of the A Gully of the Salcombe Cannon Site and that contains four cannons. Additionally the log book entry states that the divers found bricks “a couple of gullies over” from the cannon they saw. The nearest bricks of any quantity are over 100 metres from the cannon in the A Gully and the source of the bricks – The Lord Napier – is also some 200 metres south of the A Gully. It is therefore probable that the cannon seen by Henley Branch were not those on the main Salcombe Cannon Site and remain to be re-located.
In late 2007 SWMAG dived close to the Henley coordinates targeting a cluster of magnetic anomalies identified in Wessex Archaeology’s survey. This led to the discovery of the Lord Napier, a ketch that sank on 25th April 1911 while carrying bricks from Exmouth and is the source of bricks that can be found in many areas of the site.
Bronze Age finds
In 2004 the team decided to concentrate on the SE area and a palstave axe head was located in September that year. No longer was the team looking for 17C artefacts, but Bronze Age. It turned out that the pot handle and adze located in 2002 are also from the Bronze Age, and following a reassessment of the original assemblage at the British Museum some of the original artefacts recovered were also identified as Bronze Age.
Since 2004 SWMAG has located and recovered a significant number of Bronze Age artefacts that date to the Penard period and are believed to originate predominantly from France. This makes them contemporary to the artefacts from Moor Sand found by Phillip Baker in 1977 and Keith Muckelroy et al during subsequent surveys of the site; given the closeness of the two sites (the designated areas overlap) it seemed probable that there was some connection between the two. The Bronze Age site was named the Salcombe B Site to differentiate it from the original 17C site.
“Clearly SWMAG are archaeologists with a passion and dedication, and their high quality work is revealing new stories from our past as well as enabling better heritage use and protection.”
Ian Oxley Head of Maritime Archaeology
One artefact in particular has proved to be of extreme archaeological interest. A Strumento con Immanicatura a Cannone (lit. “having a cannon shaped handle” – it’s purpose is unknown), the artefact originated in Sicily and is the first of these items to be found in a secure context in north-west Europe. As such it represents the first conclusive evidence of trade routes that extended from the Mediterranean to the UK during the Bronze Age.
Work during 2008 led SWMAG ever closer to Moor Sand as the team followed the trail of Bronze Age artefacts. In 2009 Moor Sand and the Salcombe Cannon Site were brought together under a single project plan and work that year recovered the largest single collection of Bronze Age copper ingots in the UK – land or maritime – and probably Europe, and prompted Ben Roberts, Curator of the European Bronze Age at the British Museum, to state that “Salcombe is now one of the most important Bronze Age sites currently being investigated in Britain.”
Home for the artifacts
All of the finds can be found in the British Museum in the ‘Citi Money Gallery, Room 68’
Bathymetric and magmetometer surveys were carried out to provide us with a map of the seabed and leaded lines were laid in the gullies. These calibrated lines enabled us to accurately position any artefacts found and plot them on a chart.
The site today
The above images shows one of the cannon and the resident lobster.
Today the site is cleared of artefacts except for the cannon and it still makes a colourful dive. We are still doing work on the site to try and establish whether or not the wreck is of North African or Dutch origin.