NAS member Paul Harwood, swapped his day-job of computer programming in London, for three days of immersing himself in 18th century archaeology at Fort Cumberland. Here he tells his tale…

A few weeks ago, on Thursday 17th Jan, I found myself at Waterloo station at 05:30 on a chillingly cold morning waiting for the first train to Portsmouth. Warm coffee in one hand a bag full of wellies and warm clothing in the other - it could only mean one thing, time for an NAS course! 

I was heading to Fort Cumberland for the first of three days of Maritime Archaeology courses with the Rooswijk1740 team. The first of which was about “Coins from the Sea”: a rare and exciting chance to understand the importance of coins in maritime archaeology, and to learn more about how to handle, document and clean these interesting finds.

In the morning Jan Pelsdonk, Curator for Coins and Medals at the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, had travelled to the UK, with funding from the Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (Dutch government), to talk to us about Numismatics (the study of coins). This was a fascinating account of the history of coins, from their invention in 5th century BCE Lydia (which made King Croesus “as rich as Croesus”) up to the modern penny. However, the focus was on the Dutch coins that are found on Dutch East India company wrecks like the Rooswijk. As we were to discover later, these are mostly Schillings and “pieces of eight”: 8 Real coins which could also be cut down to 4 Real and 2 Real “pieces” if change was needed.

It was fascinating to understand how the availability (and thus price) of silver across the centuries has influenced the types of coins produced, and the differences in “date-ranges” for the production of various types of coins - which makes some more diagnostic for dating purposes than others. But always remember that the date of the coin only really tells you when the die was cut - which could be years before the coin was made and that coin could be in use for decades or even centuries.

The first talk was complemented by a discussion from Florian Ströbele, Historic England Material Scientist, on the materials used in coin production and how to detect them using X-ray Fluoroscopy. The chemical differences between tradition Greek silver and New World silver were intriguing.

Next, NAS Education Officer Peta Knott talked about the importance of coins in nautical archaeology and what they can tell us about the past, before Kim Roche, Project Conservator for the Rooswijk, talked about cleaning, stabilising and storing coins as finds: including understanding that the corrosion products do themselves provide valuable information about the find and the context (and, of course, the importance of always wearing gloves when handling finds).

In the afternoon, we split up into small groups and tried our hands at cleaning finds from the Rooswijk, recording and cataloguing them, using X-ray Fluoroscopy to find what metals they are made of, and then packaging them for storage (never separate the find from its label!). It was great to work on real finds and learn skills whilst knowing that you are helping with real archaeological conservation (although I am sure they would have done it much quicker without us!).


Other highlights of the trip included the Fort itself, a tour of the finds from the Rooswijk and a visit to the Portsmouth Distillery which has recently set up on site. All in all - a very successful three days, where I met many new friends and learned some important skills. Thanks to Peta, NAS and the Rooswijk1740 team for taking the time with us.

About the #Rooswijk1740 Project:

The Rooswijk was a Dutch East India Company vessel which sank on the treacherous Goodwin Sands, off Kent, in January 1740. The ship was outward-bound for Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) with trade goods. The site is now protected by the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and all access is controlled by a licensing system administered by Historic England on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The ship's remains lie at a depth of some 25 metres and are owned by the Dutch Government. The UK government is responsible for managing shipwrecks in British waters, therefore both countries work closely together to manage and protect the wreck site.  The International Programme for Maritime Heritage of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (on behalf of the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture) and Historic England (on behalf of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) are responsible for the joint management of the Rooswijk.

An archaeological survey of the site in 2016, undertaken by RCE and Historic England, showed that the wreck site was at high risk. As a result, a two-year excavation project began in 2017. Wrecks such as the Rooswijk are part of the shared cultural maritime heritage across Europe and it's important that cultural heritage agencies are able to work together to ensure that sites like this are protected, researched, understood and appreciated by all. The project involves an international team led by RCE in partnership with Historic England. MSDS Marine are the UK Project Managers for the project. This course was funded by the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency as part of the project and run by the Nautical Archaeology Society and MSDS Marine.

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