A feasibility study for a scheme for the “Recovery, Recording and Reburial” of material from the protected wreck of The London (1665) in the Thames Estuary.

Historic England Project Number 7784

The London is currently on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register as being highly vulnerable with “Extensive significant problems”.

Historic England have accepted that resources may never be available to recover the entire assemblage on the seabed and it may never be possible to protect the site from both natural and man-made erosion processes in the Thames Estuary.

As a result is hoped that this feasibility study (commissioned by Historic England and undertaken in 2019-2020) will go some way towards “unlocking solutions” or presenting alternative strategies to deal with the reality of the situation on this vulnerable “at risk” protected wreck.

On publication of the study Historic England have stated that “The report provides a strong platform for determining future plans for the London wreck. We look forward to working with the NAS and the project contributors to develop the next steps for this exciting project.”   

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 Interesting timber from the London with unusual markings - left on the seabed and now lost (C) Steve Ellis

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Project Contributors

Mr Steven Ellis, Principle Licensee of the London protected wreck: Steve advised and contributed to the practical and technical implications of the scheme providing help particularly on where material could be brought ashore once recovered, where it could be recorded and where reburied.

"It was great to be involved with this project. I am very pleased to contribute and excited to see how this study is followed up in 2021. The dive team witness timbers eroding out all the time, but at least this way we can record the information before it's lost forever." 

Dr Antony Firth, MCIfA, from Fjordr Ltd: Antony addressed the ethical implications that would arise from a proposal to recover, record and rebury the material remains of the London. The consideration of ethical implications has drawn upon existing codes and standards in archaeological and curatorial practice; issues raised by comparable approaches of other submerged and waterlogged sites; and selected examples of reburial in UK land-based contexts. The ethical dimension of the work proposed on the London encompasses all stages of intervention, from the likely trajectory of the wreck given existing environmental pressures; through methodological decisions relating to recording and recovery; to ethical questions attending reburial itself. The ethical dimensions of subsequent actions – including monitoring, analysis, publication and wider dissemination and core issues such as questions of accessibility following reburial, and uncertainties over the mid-long-term future of reburied material were addressed by Antony.

Professor Michael Williams (Visiting Professor, School of Law, Criminology & Government, Faculty of Arts, Humanities & Business, Plymouth University) and Jason Lowther (Associate Head of School (Law), Plymouth University: Michael and Jason looked at the legal implications of a “Recover, Record and Rebury” scheme for the London, including all legislative and licencing implications for both the recovery and the reburial process. This has included, but not limited to the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973), the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009), the Annex of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001). It has also considered issues of ownership and liability surrounding material that has been placed on or under the seabed.

“This study investigated the feasibility of an innovative approach to securing the conservation of threatened underwater cultural heritage. Utilising Plymouth University’s expertise in marine environmental law it  was a privilege to have been able to contribute to such an innovative and interdisciplinary proposal to secure the protection of important cultural materials for future generations.  We very much hope to see the project’s fruition as a result of follow-up work to the study.”

Richard Endsor, Independent Historian: Richard set out what we can learn from structural elements of the London, if they could be recorded in detail on the surface. Richard has already identified that if structure from the wreck of the London could be raised it may be possible to determine the seventeenth century process of building large warships and test reality with the scant available surviving evidence.

Angela Middleton, Conservator at Historic England: Angela looked at the methodology, conservation and scientific research implications of the study, specifically this aspect has been undertaken as a literature review to inform the following topics: Reburial site selection; Environmental monitoring before reburial; Assessment of the condition of the archaeological remains prior to reburial; Design/depth of reburial pit; Modern materials (crates, labels, markers, etc.) used as part of reburial; Monitoring of the condition of the archaeological remains during reburial; Monitoring intervals, Use of proxy indicators; Retrieval intervals of proxy indicators. Based on the literature review, recommendations have been made as to how a reburial project for material originating from the London may be undertaken. The question of whether reburial could or should take place in the marine environment or a freshwater environment has been addressed by Angela.

Mark Beattie-Edwards, Nautical Archaeology Society CEO: Mark acting as the Project Manager, worked with Steve Ellis contributing to the practical and technical implications of the scheme undertaking research and site visits particularly on where material could be brought ashore once recovered, where it could be recorded and where reburied. Mark also acted as the editor of the final report.

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Research Aims

The aim of this study was to undertake the necessary research to determine the feasibility of a scheme of recovery, recording and reburial for at risk objects and diagnostic structural elements of the wreck of the London, lost in the Thames Estuary in 1665.

The project will allow Historic England to make informed, ethically sound decisions about the management of the London and other protected wreck sites in the future.

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Research Objectives

Six key objectives had been identified as part of this study, all relating to the implications and the opportunities of such a scheme to recover at risk objects and structural elements of the wreck of the London and to store them, record them and rebury them on the seabed. Possible location or locations of any reburial, whether within or outside the spatially defined designation areas (Area 1 and 2) were determined during the study and recommended as part of the research outcomes.

The six key objectives were:

1. To determine the legal implications of a “recover-record-rebury” scheme on the wreck of the London.

2. To determine the ethical implications of a “recover-record-rebury” scheme on the wreck of the London.

3. To determine the practical and technical implications and mechanisms of a “recover-record-rebury” scheme on the wreck of the London

4. To determine the financial cost of a “recover-record-rebury” scheme on the wreck of the London

5. To determine the scientific and archaeological/historical research implications and opportunities presented by a “recover-record-rebury” scheme on the wreck of the London.

6. To determine the wider conservation implications of a “recover-record-rebury” scheme for dealing with sea-waterlogged shipwreck material. 

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Results and Recommendations 

In short, the study has demonstrated that ethically, legally and practically, a scheme to “recover-record-rebury” material from the London can be justified and undertaken. Currently the opportunities to understand structural elements of the ship’s construction are being lost as erosion on the site exposes the wood to marine-boring organisms and results in them eventually being washed away.

The full study can be downloaded here

Having demonstrated that such a scheme to “recover-record-rebury” material from the London could be ethically, legally and practically undertaken, the natural recommendation of the feasibility study is for Historic England to commission a full assessment of one of the possible reburial sites and a pilot study for the recovery, recording and reburial of material from the wreck. The NAS plans to submit such a proposal during 2021.


Such an assessment and pilot study should:

  • Evaluate the suitability of one of the proposed reburial locations. It is felt by the author that the most suitable location (of all those considered in this study) where it would be worth undertaking such a study first would be at the lake at Hadleigh Park (see 17.9). Whilst the fresh-water environment is not exactly the same as that in the Thames Estuary, it is secure, safe, easy to access, potentially deep enough, privately owned and close to Leigh Marina where material would be recorded;
  • Include a limited number of recoveries, recording and reburials using a variety of “at risk” material from the London wreck, as part of the evaluation, as well as test samples of different material types;
  • Include establishing detailed recording protocols and methodologies to develop efficient and effective practices as well as skills training needs and requirements;
  • Establish reporting, research and archiving procedures that can be tested, costed and incorporated into any full-scale project that could be developed in the future;
  • Be undertaken for a least a full 12 months to allow for monitoring of conditions at the reburial site over the annual seasonal cycle, including evaluation of geological, biological and chemical conditions;
  • Be undertaken for a full 12 months to allow for a fuller understanding of the time, resources, expertise and costs of the “recover-record-rebury” scheme.

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Copyright

This study has been undertaken by the Nautical Archaeology Society for and with grant support from Historic England. The report has been edited by Mark Beattie-Edwards, MA, MCIfA, FSA, NAS Chief Executive Officer and Nominated Archaeologist to the Principle Licensee of the London, Mr Steve Ellis.

The Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS) holds the copyright to this full report. Individual sections of the report and any associated images remain the copyright of the originators. The NAS has given permission to Historic England to use the report’s findings to assist with the management of the London protected wreck.

Permission to use images from within the report is still required, both from the NAS and the image originator.

Banner Image: Digitisation of timbers using a Faro Arm as part of the Newport Medieval Ship Project © Newport Medieval Ship Project.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Steve Ellis, Dr Antony Firth, Richard Endsor, Angela Middleton, Prof Michael Williams, Jason Lowther, Steve Meddle, Carol Ellis, Paul Bonnici (English Heritage), Mrs J. A. Williams (Plymouth University), Gary King (Hadleigh Park), Richard Holdsworth (Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust) and Hefin Meara (Historic England).

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Contact

Mark Beattie-Edwards, MA, MCIfA, FSA

Feasibility Study Project Manager 

Email: [email protected]