Blackened piece of wet leather being handled by a conservator wearing blue latex gloves
Conservator holding remains of a leather shoe which now has barnacles and sea material growing on it © Luke Mair
Conservator holding remains of a leather shoe which now has barnacles and sea material growing on it © Luke Mair

Excavating the London Shipwreck – the Festival of Archaeology

As part of the Festival of Archaeology, licensed divers and local volunteers gathered at Southend Pier in Essex to conserve and record artefacts that have been retrieved from one of England's most important 17th century shipwrecks, the London, in a major project by English Heritage, Cotswold Archaeology, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council's Museums Service and local professional divers. The London mysteriously blew up in 1665 and sank off Southend-on-Sea where it is now rapidly deteriorating, lying in two parts on the sea bed.

Over the past three months, a specialist diving team have undertaken 10 planned dives of the wreck site and have been mapping the ship and discovering and retrieving a series of objects. Led by experienced Thames Estuary diver Steven Ellis, the team have retrieved musket shots and ingots as well as ship fixtures and fittings, tools and personal items including pewter spoons, coins and navigational dividers.

Mark Dunkley, Maritime Archaeologist at English Heritage said: "There are still five dives to go. What we have confirmed so far is that the well preserved and vulnerable remains of the wreck of the London are consistent with the historical records that she did in fact blow up."

Steve Webster, Project Manager at Cotswold Archaeology said: "This two year project is the only ongoing excavation on an underwater wreck in England at the present time. The artefacts that we can recover may be similar in scope to those recovered from the Mary Rose, but 120 years later in date. This will allow us to better understand a whole range of changes that occurred between the first half of the 16th century and the second half of the 17th century. This period saw the expansion of Britain's sea power and marks the start of the British Empire."

Steven Ellis, who has been granted the Government licence to dive the wreck said: "Working underwater in the murky Thames Estuary has been challenging but we're making progress in understanding the nature of this fascinating 300 year old wreck site."

Finds recovered from the site are being curated by Southend Museums Service which secured a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to develop the community project to record the finds as well as hosting a permanent display. There will also be a publication produced about the wreck.

Luisa Hagele, Project Curator at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council's Museums Service said: "This project provides an incredible opportunity for local people to engage with their own heritage and a unique experience for the Southend community. The Museums Service has worked alongside the Nautical Archaeology Society to train some local volunteers to assist us with work on the finds and they are all extremely excited to be getting involved. This event will enable the public to see some of the beautiful objects found so far. They'll also witness part of the complex process that archaeological finds undergo post excavation". 

The London was one of only three completed wooden Second Rate 'Large Ships' that were built between 1642-1660 and is the only one that survives.

English Heritage commissioned Cotswold Archaeology to carry out this underwater excavation in order to find out just how much archaeological material survives. Divers are excavating three trenches in the bow of the wreck, designed to explore archaeological remains in the hold, the orlop deck where the anchor cables are, the main gun deck as well as carpenter and boatswains store rooms which would have contained tools and timber stores.

The London was rediscovered in 2005 during works in advance of the London Gateway Port development in Thurrock, Essex. In October 2008, it was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973) and immediately placed on English Heritage's Heritage at Risk register as its fragile archaeological remains were being exposed by shifting sediment levels on the seabed. The wreck is routinely monitored by professional diver Steven Ellis and his team.

Southend Museums Service and Steven Ellis with his dive team are a contender for this year's Angel Awards for their work on the London. The Angel Awards, co-funded by the Andrew-Lloyd Webber Foundation, celebrate local people who rescue heritage at risk and will be announced at a glittering ceremony in London on 3 November 2014.