The Western Approaches to the English Channel is one of the busiest and most dangerous sea lanes in the world. Throughout the centuries it has swallowed hundreds of ships from entire man-of-war to modern fishing boats. Since 2005 Odyssey Marine Exploration has been working in these often treacherous waters, conducting a program of offshore archaeological search and recovery operations using side-scan sonar, magnetometry and Remotely-Operated Vehicle (ROV) reconnaissance. Through October 2008, Odyssey’s “Atlas” Search Project, encompassing the Western Approaches to southwestern England and the western English Channel, has discovered 267 shipwrecks across an area of 4,725 square nautical miles. The program is the most extensive deep-sea shipwreck survey ever conducted in Europe.
In 2005, shipwreck site 35F was identified in approximately 110 meters of water in the Western Approaches of the English Channel, beyond the territorial waters and contiguous zones of England, France and Ireland. Side-scan sonar imagery revealed an anomaly composed of linear, cannon-like features, along with distinct, parallel furrows running directly through the wreck—the notorious sign of scallop dredges raking the site for shellfish. Visual ROV confirmation demonstrated that the site has been profoundly damaged by impacts from the offshore fishing industry, with hull remains, cargo and cannon severely broken up, scattered and destroyed. The pottery has been thoroughly smashed and only a fraction of its precious cargo of elephant tusks and copper manillas (bracelets), a primitive form of currency used for barter in West Africa, have survived intact. Of particular historical importance is the discovery of a rare carpenter’s folding ruler, the earliest known example ever found on any shipwreck in the world.
A subsequent 2009 monitoring trip to the wreck site revealed evidence of further damage; iron cannon stored along the keel in the hold, clearly stowed as saleable cargo, had been flipped over. Twelve of the 48 cannon were found scattered 60-300 metres away from the wreck site.
The available evidence indicates that site 35F was a heavily armed English merchant vessel engaged in West African trade that was lost between the middle and late 17th century (1650-1690). Research further suggests the site likely represents the first wreck of a Royal Africa Company ship discovered worldwide. Until an artifact that serves to conclusively identify the ship is discovered, however, the ultimate character of this shipwreck will remain a matter of conjecture and speculation. Given the site’s location in heavily fished seas, the hope of procuring further untouched material culture is extremely limited. The wreck’s prospects for short- and long-term in situ preservation are non-existent.
Odyssey Archaeological Papers 10 and 23 provide more information about this shipwreck site and are available here.