Poole wreck: Wooden head raised from seabed heightens 17th-century mystery

Large sculpted moustachioed human head formed part of the wrecked ship’s 3.5 tonne rudder

Archaeology Correspondent

A unique work of art raised yesterday from the seabed off the Dorset coast is, for the time being at least, proving as mysterious as the wrecked 17th century vessel it came from.

The wooden masterpiece – a large sculpted moustachioed human face – formed part of the sunken ship’s eight metre long 3.5 tonne rudder. But who the three-times-life-size sculpture represents – and even the identity of the vessel itself is currently unknown.

Research, carried out on behalf of Bournemouth University’s Marine Archaeology Research Group, suggests that the ship was built in Holland in 1628 or 1629 and that it sank sometime between 1630 and 1645. But the huge size of the rudder and its sculpted face could ultimately prove crucial in more accurately working out the vessel’s size and likely port of origin.

However, perhaps the biggest mystery of all is why it ended up at the bottom of the sea off Dorset. At least five options are being examined by the researchers. They include the possibility that she was sunk in the English Civil War (the Dutch were involved in arms running to both sides!) or that she was attacked by Spanish-backed privateers or even Algerian pirates. Alternatively she could have run aground on a sandbank or been wrecked in a storm.

The great wooden rudder (including its moustachioed sculpture) is the final artefact being brought up from the wreck site. For over the past seven years, some 1200 finds have been rescued from the wreck by Bournemouth University marine archaeologists. The site has now been sealed to prevent erosion and looting. The material lifted from the seabed by the archaeologists has included ship’s timbers, elaborate wooden carvings, ropes and pulley blocks from the rigging, several cannon and gun carriages, cannon balls, lanterns, navigational equipment, shoes, boots, cooking utensils – and even the large barrels which had once contained the ship’s store of salt beef.

The sculpted moustachioed rudder head lifted from the seabed yesterday is a unique artefact. No other example is known from anywhere else in the world.

Some of the objects will go on exhibition in Poole Museum next year, although a more complete selection – including much of the vessel’s bow castle and the great rudder – will probably go on permanent display in 2015 or 2016. Most of the material is currently undergoing conservation, funded by English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund, at York Archaeological Trust in York.

A potentially insoluble mystery is what the vessel was carrying. No cargo has been found – so it is conceivable that it was officially salvaged in the 17 century – or alternatively that it was illegally looted by people in the Poole area before the authorities could reach it.

The wreck is located near Poole – a mile off the coast in some seven metres of water. It was first discovered in 1990 when a dredger hit an obstruction. Detailed archaeological work on the site, known as the Swash Channel, started in 2006. It’s been one of the largest marine archaeological projects ever carried out in UK waters – involving dozens of Bournemouth University archaeology students and staff over the past seven years.

“The wreck is important because so much of it survives”, said Bournemouth University marine archaeologist, Dave Parham.  “It is the ship itself that is significant – there are only a few wrecks like this in the world, and it tells us more about the beginnings of large scale international trade,” he added.

It’s currently estimated that the substantial vessel was around 40 metres in length and designed for ocean-going trade. Around 40 per cent of the ship is intact under the seabed – and some 4 per cent has been raised. The underwater excavations, funded by English Heritage, were necessary to protect key elements of the historic vessel from erosion.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'