Silhouettes of people on the Tankerton wreck site near Whitstable, North Kent
The Tankerton wreck site near Whitstable, North Kent © Mark Harrison FSA/Timescapes
The Tankerton wreck site near Whitstable, North Kent © Mark Harrison FSA/Timescapes

Archaeologists Investigate Medieval Shipwreck Discovered By Volunteers

  • Volunteers discovered the Tudor wreck on mudflats at Tankerton Beach, near Whitstable, Kent while looking for demolished World War II pillboxes
  • Tankerton wreck protected as it is the only known surviving medieval wreck in the South East
  • Archaeologists hoping to uncover personal effects and cargo
  • Second wreck from late 18th century on Camber Sands discovered by local resident also protected

This week archaeologists will excavate the recently-discovered shipwreck on the inter-tidal mudflats at Tankerton Beach in Kent. Today, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has scheduled this wreck and another in Camber Sands on the advice of Historic England, giving them protection.

Tankerton Beach wreck, near Whitstable, Kent

In April 2017, a group of volunteers from a local history and archaeology society looking for evidence of demolished World War II pillboxes in tidal areas discovered a wreck on the foreshore at Tankerton Beach. The wreck is exposed in mudflats when the tide is low.

Historic England commissioned Wessex Archaeology, assisted by volunteers from Timescapes to survey the exposed remains which measure 12.14m long x 5m wide. Two trenches that were excavated revealed the presence of well-preserved hull timbers from the keel up to the turn of the bilge, where the bottom of the ship curves to meet the vertical sides.

Dendrochronological sampling has revealed that one oak plank is of southern British woodland origin with a felling date of AD1531. Three other oak samples were tentatively dated to the 16th century, with elm, larch and beech timbers. The construction of the hull suggests that the ship is a late 16th century, early 17th century carvel-built single-masted merchant ship of 100-200 tons.

The proximity of the wreck to a well-known copperas works provides some context for the wreck. Copperas, also known as green vitriol - hydrated ferrous sulphate, was largely used in the textile industry as a dye fixative and in the manufacture of ink. Copperas works are known at Whitstable from 1565 and it is possible that the Tankerton Beach wreck was engaged in transporting copperas before being abandoned at the coast edge in an area of what was once tidal salt marsh.

The Tankerton wreck has been given protection because it is the only known surviving Medieval shipwreck in south-east England. It gives us evidence of Tudor/early Stuart shipbuilding techniques and the late Medieval copperas industry along the north Kent coast.

Historic England has commissioned Wessex Archaeology to excavate the wreck this week and hope to find personal effects and cargo in the hull. The excavation will add to our knowledge and understanding of our nation's rich maritime heritage.

See the list entry for the Tankerton wreck


Camber Sands wreck, near Rye, East Sussex

A local resident alerted Historic England to a newly-exposed substantial wooden wreck on the foreshore of Camber Sands near Rye, East Sussex. Previously they had only ever seen a stump but in September 2016 there were ribs and other stumps showing.

Historic England investigated and identified the wreck as remains of a substantial oak-built sailing vessel measuring 47.2m long by 9.5m wide lying parallel to the beach. It is likely to date to the late 18th or early 19th century. The width and thickness of the timbers suggest it was a heavily-built ship. Interestingly, some of the timbers are of North American origin, showing that the vessel was partially constructed with or repaired using North American oak.

Records indicate that the wreck may be the Avon. It was reported to have 'stranded and drifted alongshore to the east of Rye Harbour and received considerable damage' in August 1852 en route from Le Havre with a cargo of timber. The Avon is recorded as being built in Nova Scotia in 1843.

The discovery of the wreck has the potential to further our understanding of the timber used in shipbuilding and repairs in eastern North America. As it may have been built in North America it could answer questions about transatlantic timber trade in the 19th century.

See the list entry for the Camber Sands wreck


Heritage Minister Michael Ellis said: "The Tankerton and Camber Sands wrecks are a marvellous discovery that will give us another opportunity to uncover more about what life at sea was like hundreds of years ago. 

"It is important that we protect them to learn more about our impressive maritime history and ensure that it is preserved for future generations."

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: "These two very different ships are equally fascinating and will shed light on our maritime past. Many of the ships that Historic England protects are accessible only to divers but when the sands shift and the tide is right, visitors to these beaches in Kent and Sussex can catch a glimpse of these incredible wrecks. I'm delighted that volunteers are so involved in discovery, which is one of the great gifts of the historic environment."

Mark Harrison, Director of Timescapes, said: "Our group of volunteers was looking for exploded World War II pillboxes along the Kent coast. Adjacent to a lump of exploded concrete, we were amazed to see the timbers of a ship appearing out of the sand. We reported the find to Historic England and are pleased that what turned out to be a Medieval wreck has been given protection and that this excavation could tell us more about its story."

Toby Gane, Project Manager from Wessex Archaeology, said: "This is a rare opportunity to investigate the remains of an early vessel. We know from our earlier work that this vessel has an interesting mix of construction features and we have been finding out more about it during this excavation."