Underwater archaeologists from Bournemouth University have recovered two medieval grave slabs that lay on the seabed of Studland Bay for nearly 800 years. These slabs, carved from Purbeck marble, were part of the cargo of England’s oldest recorded shipwreck, which sank off the coast of Dorset during the reign of Henry III in the 13th century.

The wreck site, now dubbed the “Mortar Wreck” due to its cargo of grinding mortars made from the same Purbeck stone, has revealed significant historical artifacts. The details of this discovery are set to be published in the forthcoming issue of the journal Antiquity.

On June 4, divers and archaeologists, led by Bournemouth University, retrieved the slabs from a depth of around seven meters. This two-hour operation brought to the surface two remarkable pieces: one immaculate grave slab measuring one and a half meters and weighing approximately 70 kilograms, and a much larger slab, found in two pieces, with a combined length of two meters and a weight of around 200 kilograms.

Recovery of one of the pieces
Recovery of one of the pieces. Credit: Bournemouth University

Both slabs are intricately carved with Christian crosses, a design popular in the 13th century, suggesting they were intended as coffin lids or monuments in crypts for high-status clergy.

Tom Cousins, a maritime archaeologist at Bournemouth University who spearheaded the recovery, explained the significance of these slabs: The wreck occurred at the peak of the Purbeck stone industry. The grave slabs we have here were a very popular monument for bishops and archbishops in cathedrals and monasteries across England at that time. Examples have been found in Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, and Salisbury Cathedral.

The slabs will undergo desalination and conservation by the Bournemouth team before being displayed alongside other recovered artifacts in the new Shipwreck Gallery at Poole Museum, set to reopen next year.

Detail of one of the recovered slabs
Detail of one of the recovered slabs. Credit: Bournemouth University

The Mortar Wreck site was first identified as an “obstruction” in 1982 but was presumed to be a pile of underwater debris. Its true significance was not realized until 2019, when Tom Cousins and his team, following a tip from local boatman Trevor Small, dived at the site and uncovered its hidden treasures beneath the sand.

The ongoing recovery of artifacts, including mortars and grave slabs, offers invaluable insights into 13th-century life and the ancient craft of stonemasonry. Although Purbeck marble was quarried near Corfe Castle, there has always been debate about how much work was done locally versus in London. We now know these were definitely carved here but hadn’t yet been polished to their usual glossy finish when they sank, so there’s still more to learn, Cousins noted.

The Bournemouth team plans to continue exploring and protecting the wreck over the coming years, aiming to eventually record the well-preserved wooden frames of the ship’s hull still embedded in the sand. Additionally, Cousins sees this project as an opportunity to train the next generation of maritime archaeologists.

Recovery of one of the slabs
Recovery of one of the slabs. Credit: Bournemouth University

The future goal of the project is to ensure that the next generation has the same opportunities I had. We’ve already started teaching our second-year students to dive, and as they reach their third year, we’ll take them to sea and teach them their first steps in becoming maritime archaeologists, he stated.

The recovered grave slabs, soon to be exhibited, will serve as a tangible link to the rich history of the 13th century, providing the public with a direct connection to the lives and craftsmanship of that era.

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