Seaman Swan, killed in a storm, tells story of life in Cromwell's navy

Click to follow

He was a five-foot-tall sailor, suffered rickets as a child, had the poise and balance of a trapeze artist, and died 351 years ago.

He was a five-foot-tall sailor, suffered rickets as a child, had the poise and balance of a trapeze artist, and died 351 years ago.

This incredibly detailed profile of a young seaman has been pieced together by scientists using bones recovered from the wreck of Oliver Cromwell's warship The Swan.

The remains of the body was found in the vessel, which sank off the Scottish coast in 1653.

"He would have looked like King Kong," Dr Colin Martin, a marine archaeologist from the University of St Andrews, told the British Association of Science Festival at Exeter, referring to the broad shoulders and bowed legs the sailor would have had.

The Swan had been one of a six-strong task force sent by Cromwell to attack Duart Castle, stronghold of the Maclean clan, whose chief was an ally of Charles II. But as the six ships lay at anchor, unloading their siege equipment, soldiers and provisions, a violent storm struck, sinking three of them. Only The Swan has been found.

Dr Martin explained how he and Professor Sue Black, of the University of Dundee, had pieced together the sailor's life from the bones discovered amidst the "archaeological lasagna" of the wreck, which had been embedded in the sea floor until its discovery in 1979. The bones had been thought to belong to different people, but turned out to be from one. About 80 per cent of the skeleton has been discovered, and tells its own tale of its deceased owner, dubbed "Seaman Swan", an able seaman who would have hauled the heavy mainsails and leapt through the rigging for hours every day.

"This individual represents a lot of what would have been true for the time," said Dr Martin. "He was in his early twenties, and as a child - like many other people of the period, including Charles I - had rickets, which left him with bowed, stunted legs. But apart from that he was extremely fit and healthy. He exercised in a way we would think of as beyond comprehension. His upper body was extraordinarily well-developed and was equally strong both sides, like a modern trapeze artist."

He said he was able to deduce this through careful study of the breadth of the dead seaman's chest, and the points on the bones where the muscles attach; in his case those would have been very large.

He was fed well, and bones from fish and sheep were found in the wreck. However, his molars were almost worn flat by the stone-ground flour which made up a major part of his diet. This, plus signs of pelvic repetitive strain injury caused by jumping from rigging, indicated that, had the young sailer lived, he would have done so uncomfortably.

Dr Martin said that the discovery was a delight to marine historians. "Before the 1660s, kings would build boats any old way. There wasn't much organisation about it. So this really comes from the pre-history of shipping; there aren't many surviving records of the time."