The Swash Channel Wreck gives up its secrets at Poole Museum

By Richard Moss | 21 August 2014

The mysterious Swash Channel Wreck, much of which still lies in six metres of water off Poole Harbour, is giving up some of its secrets in an exhibition at Poole Museum

a photo of a wooden carved bearded figure resting on the seabed
A carved merman from the wreck© Dave Parham
It was hailed as the most significant shipwreck to be discovered in UK waters since the Mary Rose, but the Swash Channel Wreck, found outside Poole Harbour in 1990, has until now kept many of its secrets close to its chest – or watery grave. 

Designated a wreck of national importance in 2004, archaeologists and students from Bournemouth University began diving on the seventeenth century vessel in 2006 to assess its condition and rate of deterioration.

Its worsening condition led to an excavation by a Bournemouth University marine archaeology team in 2010. So far over 1,000 artefacts have been brought to the surface. These range from large timbers, pottery and personal items like shoes and tankards to cannon and a series of elaborately carved figures.

Now some of these artefacts can be seen for the first time in a new exhibition at Poole Museum, which is displaying a selection of the finds - including an intricately carved merman recovered and preserved by students - together with replicas and related objects.

The exhibition, which is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, also tells the story of the discovery of the 17th century Dutch ship and uncovers the history of the ship itself, from its building to its untimely sinking.

An ornately carved vessel, archaeologists still don't know its name but timber dendrochronology indicates that it was made from trees felled on the German-Dutch border. It is thought to have belonged to the Dutch East India Company and probably foundered around 1630 or 1631 on the edge of the Hook Sands at the entrance to Poole Harbour.

The pinewood sheathing, with a layer of tar and hair between, which was discovered on the hull is typical of Dutch East India Company ships bound for the treacherous trading zones of the Tropics and the Americas. Accordingly it was plentifully armed with 34 cannons.

The level of detail and lack of weathering on the ornate carvings recovered from the wreck also suggests the merchantman was on its maiden voyage when it sunk just outside Poole Harbour.

Currently the only known 'surviving' example of this type of ship, archaeologists say it signifies the transition from maritime exploration to global trading.

“I think there are so many stories around the ship wreck and even though it’s a very local wreck, discovered just outside Poole harbour, it’s an incredibly international story,” says exhibition curator Katie Morton who helped to bring the ship’s story to life.

The 40 metre-long merchant ship boasted three masts and may have weighed anything up to 600 tons. The rudder alone was eight metres long and was topped with an elaborately carved face of a man with a moustache.

“This ship, and you have to picture it all decorated with carvings and painted, would have been absolutely incredible," adds Katie.

“It’s fabulous that it’s on our doorstep. Poole is full of amazing maritime heritage which we are lucky to have at Poole Museum but this is really special.”

The Swash Channel Wreck: Poole’s mysterious shipwreck decoded is on now, entry is free.

Click below to launch a gallery of images from the excavation and exhibition.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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