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Archaeologists unearth 18th century shipwreck off Seasalter near Whitstable

By Lydia Chantler-Hicks

Marine archaeologists have finally unearthed the wreck of a long-buried 18th century ship on the Kent coast.

The "extremely rare" wreck - known as the Old Brig - was discovered just off Seasalter, where it has been exceptionally well preserved under layers of mud and silt.

But shifting sands and seawater on the beach have exposed a large part of the wreck - leaving it standing up to half a metre high at low tide.

Video by Wessex Archaeology

This week, volunteers from local history and archaeology society Timescapes Kent worked alongside leading heritage practice Wessex Archaeology to excavate the site and uncover its secrets.

They have now established it is an English ship, built in 1720.

Wessex Archaeology project manager Toby Gane said: "It is possible that the ship was used by smugglers who were known to operate in this area.

The excavation was carried out this week. Image: Wessex Archaeology
The excavation was carried out this week. Image: Wessex Archaeology

"They often used this kind of vessel as the fore-and-aft rigging allowed them to manoeuvre closer with the wind.

"It was so versatile as a smugglers vessel that the Royal Navy adapted it and began to use them."

A major discovery made by the team this week is that the ship is not in fact a brig, as was previously thought.

Archaeologists from Timescapes Kent examining the early 18th century wreck. Picture: Timescapes Kent
Archaeologists from Timescapes Kent examining the early 18th century wreck. Picture: Timescapes Kent

Mr Gane said: "That is a major discovery. An 18th century map names it The Old Brig - which implies it is a two-masted, square-rigged vessel.

"But actually that's not the case. It's far too small to be two-masted as we've discovered.

"We believe it is probably a cutter, probably just under 50 feet long, with a single mast, and fore-and-aft rigging."

The team made a number of exciting finds during the excavation - including a pot that miraculously remained intact.

A whole olive jar was found in the wreck. Picture: Wessex Archaeology
A whole olive jar was found in the wreck. Picture: Wessex Archaeology

Mr Gane said: "It's an olive jar, routinely used to carry olive oil and wine, made in Seville in Spain.

"We've also found lots of pieces of the rigging - and lots of clay pipes, so we know people were sort of living on the vessel.

"We've got a hearth area and a kind of bread peel - a sort of flat spatula used for cooking. It shows the boat was probably grounded on the beach, but used as a base for oystermen and smuggling.

A clay pipe discovered during an initial excavation of the early 18th century wreck of the Old Brig last summer. Picture: Timescapes Kent
A clay pipe discovered during an initial excavation of the early 18th century wreck of the Old Brig last summer. Picture: Timescapes Kent

"We will study the finds assemblage - putting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together, so we can determine what it was used for.

"We've also taken some environmental samples which might inform us about where it went, for example.

"The finds are suggesting continental links, which also suggests a smuggling connection."

But there are concerns for the longevity of the ship, which is at the mercy of the elements.

An aerial view of the Old Brig at Seasalter. Copyright Tom Banbury/Timescapes Kent
An aerial view of the Old Brig at Seasalter. Copyright Tom Banbury/Timescapes Kent

"The sand there is being eroded away by coastal erosion so it's probably not going to be here forever," Mr Gane added. "As there is more coastal erosion, this vessel will be eaten away at by the tides.

"We've got a good understanding of the boat now, but it is at threat. We should in my view, if funding allows, work to extract as much information from it as we can.

"These vessels - dating from this time, with this level of preservation - are extremely rare."

Historic England maritime archaeologist Hefin Meara praised local volunteers that helped out with the dig.

Archaeologists and volunteers worked around the tide times to excavate the ship. Image: Wessex Archaeolog
Archaeologists and volunteers worked around the tide times to excavate the ship. Image: Wessex Archaeolog

He said: “Partnering professional archaeologists with volunteer groups is very important to us at Historic England. It allows for capability development and direct community involvement in researching and protecting our past.

"The wreck at Seasalter is important for what it can tell us about the local economy some 300 years ago but as it lies on a private foreshore, visitors are

discouraged except under supervision.”

Last year, a Tudor shipwreck was excavated just around the coast at Tankerton.

Read more: All the latest news from Whitstable

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