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The University of Southampton
Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute

Research project: Guernsey medieval wrecks project

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In 1986 the Romano-Celtic wreck (dubbed the 'Asterix Ship' by the media) was salvaged from St Peter Port Harbour, Guernsey (Rule & Monaghan 1993). It had been discovered by Richard Keen, a Guernsey professional diver. It had become exposed due to progressive erosion caused by the increased volume of shipping traffic into the harbour as well as an increase in the mean size of vessels (Rule 1993:6). 

Between 1985 and 1986 Margaret Rule directed the excavation and salvage of the wreck, assisted by Richard Keen, divers from Guernsey and diving archaeologists from the Mary Rose Trust. That ship is now undergoing conservation in at the Mary Rose Trust and the finds are on display in the museum in Castle Cornet at St Peter Port.

In the final underwater phase of the 'Asterix' project, a survey of the seabed in the vicinity of the wreck was conducted in order to locate any structural elements that had become detached and carried away by propeller wash from the ferries. Some of the floor timbers known to have been displaced since the wreck's discovery were located but so too were others. However, these were sections of ship structure that were obviously not Romano-Celtic. Sites '2' and '3' as they were designated had evidently been exposed by the same erosive process as the 'Asterix Ship'. They were 'clinker' built in the Nordic tradition and on the basis of their structural detail seemed to be late medieval in date. Although several metres apart, their similarity made it seem possible that they were parts of one and the same ship. In the little time left they were recorded and left in place. Shortly afterwards another medieval hull structure was discovered in the harbour when it was hit by a dredger. As the remains were in the intended path of channel deepening the vessel remains had to be quickly removed. It was therefore salvaged in one integral unit under the direction of Martin Dean in 1986. The timbers were subsequently recorded and reburied.

Since then several other sections of structure have come to light, one being partially excavated by the Guernsey Nautical Archaeology Team (GNAT). The situation is becoming reminiscent of the medieval harbour at Kalmar, which when drained in the 1930s revealed the remains of 20-25 vessels (Åkerlund 1951). In recent years erosion if anything has increased and alas, by 1997 those sections first seen in 1986 no longer existed. This alarmingly rapid decay showed that direct action was necessary to avoid total loss. As a result of inspection dives carried out on behalf of the States of Guernsey History Wrecks Advisory Committee (Adams 1998), it now also seemed as though there was more than one wreck present. It was agreed an ongoing programme of survey and recording should be started as soon as possible in collaboration with the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at Southampton. Storage and conservation facilities for large amounts of ship timbers were not available (let alone the necessary funds) hence a series of regular recording phases were planned two or three times a year. In this way it was hoped that recording would keep pace with erosion. Pieces of major importance could be removed and recorded in more detail on the surface before they became too degraded. These could then be reburied.

Related research groups

Classical and historical archaeology
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