Archaeologists "strike gold" with stinky pickling pond used in HMS Victory build

By Ben Miller | 19 November 2014

Archaeologists have found a pond used to help build mighty ships in a stinky pit beneath a dockyard

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A pickling pond which was instrumental in providing the logs for HMS Victory, HMS Namur and HMS Unicorn in Chatham centuries ago has been rediscovered beneath the Wheelwrights Shop at the town’s Historic Dockyard.

Working on a chilly morning before the arrival of the busy attraction’s visitors, archaeologists removed a concrete slab and peeled away at clay to find the foundations of the shop, treenails and well-preserved timbers. Their productive quest, though, caused a stink.

“It wasn’t long before the test pit began to get deep and things were getting, for want of a better word, smelly,” says David Britchfield, of Wessex Archaeology’s Rochester Office.

“You see, the pond has only been filled for a few hundred years. Organic material in such a wet environment takes time to break down and as it does it produces a rather pungent odour.

“At this level that we also started to notice a difference in the colour and consistency of the soil. We were no longer in deliberate backfill, but in naturally-formed silts and clays – in other words, the silted up base of the former working pond.

“We had wood, and lots of it. Wood chips were frequent, as one would expect in a timber yard, but added to this we had sections of roundwood that had been deliberately cut and trimmed into large dowel-shaped pieces.

“We had found treenails. In excellent condition, these would have been essential for the construction of ships and of course timber framed buildings and would have been used to fasten pieces of wood together.”

Built during the 18th century, the pond would have welcomed logs for pickling, carrying immersed timbers which would have had their sap leached out and replaced by salt from the water.

“In order to produce ships you need wood, and lots of it,” says Britchfield.

“This may have been sourced locally, but with such vast quantities required the adjacent river would have provided an ideal route for delivering the necessary raw materials.

“Once adequately treated and dried - a process that would take many months - timbers would have been transported to the sawyers for use or stored for later use in the adjacent storehouses.”

Previous excavations had suggested the base would consist of a timber grid lined with puddle clay. Experts decided to pursue the construction pattern as part of plans by English Heritage to consider underlying archaeological material during planning at the site.

“After marking out an area that measured about 3.5 metres square, the initial work began with the removal of the existing concrete slab – a somewhat noisy process,” says Britchfield.

“We immediately noticed the difference from our last visit – the site is now open.

“Numerous buses, school coaches and cars were starting to arrive and the coffee shop was about to open. The last thing they wanted was noisy workman in the next building.

“Thankfully the construction team did a great job - the slab was out within the hour and morning tea could be taken in peace.”

Steel sheet piles, props, steps and battered edges were used in order to reach the desired depth.

“We struck gold – well, brown really. At the very bottom of our test pit we located a large horizontal timber.

“Initial examination of the timber confirmed that it was in excellent condition.

“The anaerobic environment of the lower sequence of deposits provides ideal conditions for preservation, attested to by the frequency of wood chips and treenails within the higher deposits.”

Having found the sawn oak timbers, the team are now pondering the formation of the pond, which could have been supported on vertical piles and would have supported larger Northern and Southern ponds.
“We are more informed of the preservation conditions and we know what levels the archaeological horizons start and finish on,” concludes Britchfield.

“Armed with that information the engineers and architects have produced designs for the new development that enhance the present while protecting the past.”

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