Recovery plan for Bronze Age ship under A20

ARCHAEOLOGISTS are to launch a rescue bid to recover further sections of a 3,000-year-old ship found in Dover last month.

The craft was discovered 23ft (7m) below street level during road construction work. It is described by the National Maritime Museum as of great international significance, and is considered to be the best preserved prehistoric craft found in Britain.

Excavations to lift more of the 40ft to 50ft (15m) long wooden ship are due to start later this week. An initial 15ft (4.57m) section was recovered 10 days ago.

If they are successful, as much as two-thirds of the ship will go on display at Dover Museum.

There is much careful joinery in the ship, including cleats and halved joints. Its planks were not nailed but sewn together with cords made of yew or willow fibre, and the gaps between the planks were filled with compressed moss. It would have been paddled by a team of up to 24 men and would have carried up to five tons of freight between Britain and France.

Some years ago, just off the coast at Dover, divers found part of a 3,200-year-old cross-Channel cargo consisting of 350 pieces of scrap metal - but no ship was ever discovered.

The excavation - carried out by Canterbury Archaeological Trust with the support of the Department of Transport and English Heritage - will shed important light on what prehistoric ships in northern Europe looked like. The recovery of the stern or prow is of particular importance to the archaeologists.

After all the timbers are lifted to the surface it will take up to a year to conserve them. Like the 16th-century Mary Rose in Portsmouth and the 17th-century Vasa in Stockholm, the Bronze Age ship will need to be soaked in polyethylene glycol and then freeze-dried before being reassembled.

However, about one-third of the vessel will remain in the ground, stuck underneath the extension to the A20, and too difficult and expensive to remove. The missing third could probably be replicated from evidence gleaned from the rest of the vessel.

When the ship was abandoned 3,000 years ago, achaeologists believe it was left on the marshy edge of a river estuary that once flowed through what is now Dover.

After the new excavations start, possibly on Wednesday, a team led by Paul Bennett, an archaeologist, will work 24 hours a day for five days. Dover Harbour Board and road construction contractors Mott McDonald and Norwest Holst will help to lift as much of the ship as possible.