Latitude 50° 21.723 N
Longitude 004° 07.677 W
Depth 5m
Accuracy 2m
Location Description Cattewater, Plymouth
Seabed type Silt
Burial extent Buried
Site energy Low
Exposure Submerged
Integrity Partial
Craft type Armed merchantman
Date built Unknown
Year of loss ~1545
Manner of loss Unknown
Outcome Abandoned
Construction Wood
Propulsion Sail
Nationality Unknown
Hull beam Unknown
Hull draft Unknown
Hull displacement Unknown
Crew Unknown
Built Unknown
Owners Unknown

The Cattewater Wreck

In the summer of 1973 the Department of the Environment (DoE) undertook dredging operations in the Cattewater, as the lower reaches of the River Plym are known, in order to accommodate the introduction of a ‘deeper type of air sea rescue craft’ (4). On the morning of the 20th June, the dredger Holland XVII was brought to an abrupt stop when it brought up some timber wreckage.  The finds were reported to Mr K H Ellis, the DoE officer in charge of diving operations for the area, Ellis examined the wreckage and was convinced that it may be of historical interest. After taking a sextant position of the find, Ellis contacted the Regional Dredging officer who agreed to cease work in the vicinity of the find. The Department of Trade and Industry were then informed and after consulting the National Maritime Museum (NMM) arranged a watching brief to be conducted by Commander J E G McKee. The following day Cdr. McKee examined the wreckage and concurred with Ellis’ opinion. The wreckage fragments were then placed in a water tank in the Devonport Dockyard (4).  

Dives on the site revealed an area running 20m from east to west with what appeared the remains of a wooden vessel. The timbers that had been disturbed by the dredger were left in place but a few fragments of glass and ceramic were raised and examined by the local museum. They were dated to the 18th Century, but as the objects had been raised from an area of undisturbed sea bed it suggested that the wreckage lying beneath may be older. Further support came from examining the pieces brought up by the dredger as a the wood raised was ‘shaped like early Tudor period floors’ and what appeared to be fragments of breech loading guns (4). A meeting was held with representatives from the DoE and NMM to determine what further action should be taken as it had become clear that a further examination was warranted before dredging could resume. It was decided the DoE divers should continue to survey in order to plot the find after which their report would allow disposal decision to be made.

The next series of dives in July and August allowed Ellis to sketch the first preliminary site plan. It was hoped that the extents of the wreck could be found by probing the silt to find timber contacts but this was hindered by stones below the surface measuring up to 150mm in diameter. Some proved to be local stone but some were not suggesting that there may be ballast from more than one ship in the area.  The dumping of ballast in ports and harbours had been a problem up to the beginning of the 19th Century.

1973 Site Plan (Carpenter)

The divers were also successful in recovering one near complete gun and the keelson. The complete gun was of a type similar to two gun fragments that had been brought up by the dredger. All three consisted of a section of timber partially enclosed in a mass of concretion (4). Upon removing part of the concretion it revealed an iron barrel reinforced by rings embedded for most of the length within an oak stock . The two fragments possibly being part of the same gun. The third gun was almost intact, with only part of the butt of the stock absent. The chamber and an iron wedge at the breech end were still in place. The bore of 55mm would match that of smaller shot recovered during later excavations (12). The guns were identified as serpentines or serpentynes, which were swivel mounted, small bore guns (13).  After examining the ordnance recovered it was decided that the wreck was of such significant historical importance that it fell within the remit of the recently enacted Protection Of Wrecks Act (1973) passed on July 18th. The Cattewater wreck became the first wreck protected under the act on 5th September 1973.

Initial interpretation of the finds indicated that the vessel dated to the mid-16th Century (4). This was based on several factors; the carvel construction (planking flush rather overlapping), the use of treenails and nails in the fastenings and the fish-tailed floors which pre-dated that of the first ship-building books.

In 1974 the recently formed Cattewater Wreck Committee, under Lt Cdr Alan Bax R.N (Ret), were granted a license to survey the wreck and in January 1975 began to search for the site. Volunteers from the local RAF and BSAC dive clubs attempted to relocate the site however aside from a few scattered timbers on the sea floor, nothing else could be found the entire year (3). This was perhaps to be expected as Ellis had noted on during a hydrographic survey of the site in March 1974 that:

"The original trench excavated by the Dredger HOLLAND XVII is completely filled with silt up to the level of the surrounding seabed"

(Carpenter, et al., 1974, p. 17)(4)

In April of 1976 Bax was joined by Professor Robert Farrell and an intensive survey began. The work continued in an area of interest that divers had noticed towards the end of the 1975 season but this turned out to be nearly 40 metres from actual site. When the divers returned to searching around the mooring called ‘Spitfire’ and soon located surface timbers, after some hand fanning and ‘gentle air blast operations’ more timber was revealed (3).

Timbers recovered from the site (Mortlock archive)

With the wreck again found, a summer expedition was put together in order to establish the alignment of the vessel, identify visible wreckage and create a new overall plan of the site. The team, now led by Bax and Martin Dean, consisted of students from the Underwater Research Group of the Institute of Archaeology and volunteers from the non-profit organisation Earthwatch. The team divided the site into eight 10 metre squares, but after the summer season's work they had only succeeded in finding scattered timbers and not the ships structure as planned. The team were confident that further excavation was warranted as preserved timbers had been found beneath a mound in the south of Grid II (7).

A six week excavation began in 1977, organised by Alan Bax but directed by Berit Mortlock and Mark Redknap of the Underwater Research Group. Earthwatch supplied more volunteers for the new season alongside others such as Martin Dean, maritime archaeologist Keith Muckelroy and current SHIPS team member Peter Bernades. After 3 days of unproductive excavation a series of large timbers were noticed breaking through the sand beneath the silt layer (7). A frame of steel scaffold poles was lowered into place over the area most likely to be the wreck location. Removal of the silt, compacted grey clay and sand within the frame revealed stone ballast and large timber structure. Although conditions in the Cattewater meant that it was not practical to create a photomosaic of the wreck, tape measurements could be made which allowed a site plan to be created (7). The 1977 excavation further helped to characterise the wreck.  Pottery taken from the site was dated to between 1500-1620, carbon dating of the hull structure suggested a date of  C1485, supporting the idea that it was an early 16th Century vessel (8).  The investigation recovered finds of bone, leather, rope and wood, all of which went to Fort Bovisand for conservation. A further excavation was undertaken in 1978 to complete the 1977 work on the extent of the remains and an assessment of the 1973 damage (11). All of our knowledge of the Cattewater wreck comes from these excavations in the 1970s.

Despite repeated calls for further archaeological investigation (4; 12)  the site and its artefacts have suffered from neglect and vandalism in the intervening years. When visiting the site in 1986 the Archaeological Diving Unit (ADU), then government contractors for inspection of protected wrecks, noted that scaffold frame used during the 1976-78 excavation had not been removed as planned and the site had not been backfilled after the excavation and had been left to silt up naturally (1). Although the timbers uncovered during the excavation were no longer exposed the ADU decided to excavate a small area in order to record any damage to the remaining timber. They noticed a difference from the 1978 site plan as almost a metre of the remains had eroded from the edge of the hull (1). The continual process of siltation in the Cattewater over time has eventually led to the scaffold frame being buried which would suggest that wreck should be safe from further erosion. Unfortunately as no-one has seen the timbers since 1986 so determining the current state of preservation of the wreck is difficult.

Scaffold pole on the seabed (SHIPS Project)

The artefacts raised from the site have been the subject of what has generously been described as a ‘lack of post-excavation co-ordination’ (Gaskell-Brown, pers comm). The timbers raised in 1973, the keelson among them, were moved in 1976 to the Underwater Centre at Fort Bovisand after the Dockyard storage tank began leaking. At some point during 1980-81 the keelson was thrown over a cliff by a group of divers, an unsuccessful attempt was made during 1983 to recover it and during 1986 it was remarked that the timber was surprisingly sound despite being covered in brambles (1). The keelson was eventually returned to museum in 1997 for curation with the comment that the timber had ‘suffered greatly from vandalism, commercial diver trainees and the elements’ (2). Almost half of its five metre length had disappeared during that time, some was burned as firewood and some was used to make candlesticks and other decorative objects. A small section of the keelson spent some time as a step into a PortaCabin at Fort Bovisand (10) while the timbers relocated to Fort Bovisand from the Devonport Dockyard were probably disposed of in the 1980’s (10). The Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery was instrumental in bringing most of the surviving finds together. Further evidence of mis-management of the finds became apparent when the Museum was informed that the leather finds stored at Fort Bovisand had possibly been thrown away. Fortunately the efforts of Martin Dean and the ADU located some of the missing leather in 1987, but they remained at Fort Bovisand until 2009 when more were found by accident and all were eventually presented to the Plymouth Museum. A tentative estimate suggests (10) that only 40% of the Cattewater archive is still extant, with 18% being disposed of during excavations and a further 40% presumed either missing or lost.

The wreck itself is not under any immediate threat so it is unlikely that the site will be excavated again in the near future. However that does not mean that work has ceased on the site altogether, since 2006 the site has been investigated with modern geophysical techniques in order to determine the location and condition of the hull (9).  To date the site has been subject to a number of surveys using multibeam echo sounder (MBES), magnetometer, side scan sonar (SSS) and sub-bottom profiler (SBP). Ssurveys have been conducted by students from Plymouth University and the University of Bristol, the Royal Navy, commerical companies such as Innomar, Sonardyne and 3H Consulting as well as more recent work by the SHIPS Project. 

Diving the Cattewater Wreck

The Cattewater wreck site is on the south side of the main shipping channel of the river Plym, just of Mount Batten Watersports Centre and within the boat moorings. As what remains of the timber hull is buried beneath a metre or more of sediment there is little to see on the site. The only feature marking the location of the site is the stub of a steel scaffold pole showing above the seabed, part of the excavation frame left in place after the last excavation.

The Cattewater Wreck site is a designated protected wreck and a license is required from English Heritage before diving on the site.


(1) ADU, 1986. ADU 008; Assesment of the Cattewater Wreck, s.l.: Archaelogical Diving Unit.
(2) ADU, 1997. 97/20; The C16th wreck, Cattewater, Plymouth, England, s.l.: Archaeological Diving Unit.
(3) Bax, A., 1976. The Tudor Shipwreck in the Cattewater, Plymouth: Fort Bovisand Underwater Centre.
(4) Carpenter, A., Ellis, E. H. & McKee, E., 1974. Interim Report on the wreck discovered in the Cattewater, London: National Maritime Museum.
(5) Holt, P., 2010. Geophysical Investigations of the Cattewater Wreck 1997-2007. [Online] Available at: http://www.3hconsulting.com/SitesCattewater.htm [Accessed June 2013].
(6) Loewen, B., 1998. The Red Bay Vessel. An Example of a 16th Century Biscayan Ship. Itsas Memoria. Revista de Estudios Maritimos del Pais Vasco, Volume 2, pp. 193-199.
(7) Mortlock, B. & Redknap, M., 1977. The Tudor Shipwreck in the Cattewater, Plymouth: Fort Bovisand Underwater Centre.
(8) Mortlock, B. & Redknap, M., 1978. The Cattewater Wreck, Plymouth, Devon; Preliminary results of recent work. IJNA, 7(3), pp. 195-204.
(9) Read, M. & Holt, P., 2007. Cattewater Wreck: The Next Generation. ACHWS Annual Report, pp. 24-27.
(10) Read, M. & Overton, N., 2011. Cattewater Wreck Archive Project (5439 MAIN), s.l.: English Heritage (Unpublished).
(11) Redknap, M., 1984. The Cattewater Wreck; The investigation of an armed vessel of the early sixteenth century. London: National Maritime Museum.
(12) Redknap, M., 1997. Reconstructing 16th-century ship culture from a partially excavated site: the Cattewater wreck. In: M. Redknap, ed. Artifacts from Wrecks: Dated Assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Oxford: Oxbow books, pp. 73-85.
(13) Smith, R. D., 1994. Wrought-iron swivel guns. In: M. Bound, ed. The Archaeology of Ships or War. Shropshire: Anthony Nelson Ltd, pp. 104-113