In spring 2022, staff at Cemex’s quary on the Dungeness headland in Kent, came across a wooden shipwreck while excavating in the quarry lake for aggregate. In the year since its initial discovery, working for Kent County Council and funded by Historic England, the wreck has been investigated and recorded by archaeologists and discovered to be a rare example of a late 16th-century vessel. To celebrate the discovery of the Dungeness wreck a year on, we are releasing a series of blogs going behind the scenes. In this blog we look at the results of dendrochronological dating assessment undertaken on timber samples from the Dungeness shipwreck.

When staff at the Cemex quarry sent the initial images of wreck material to our marine archaeologists it was clear that this wreck was significant. Our marine specialist, Paolo Croce, noted that the wreck had characteristics of the so called ‘Iberian’ shipbuilding tradition. These techniques were very time-consuming so he concluded that the wreck was unlikely to be modern but could date from the 16th to 18th century. To get a date for the vessel, Historic England funded dendrochronological assessment of the timbers recovered during the initial assessment - a scientific method of dating tree rings (also called growth rings) to the exact year that the tree was formed and felled.

Dendrochronological analysis of the Ship

Of the timbers recovered from the initial survey of the wreck, 15 cross-sectional slices were taken for preliminary dendrochronological analysis to be carried out by external specialists. The samples all had between 44 and 180 growth rings, which meant they were suitable for dendrochronological assessment. The tree ring matches showed that they could have been felled in the mid- to late-16th century. One of the samples retained some sapwood and heartwood which meant that a more precise felling date could be produced of AD 1558. This would make the ship contemporary with the Spanish Armada, one of the most iconic naval engagements of the Elizabethan era!

Following the preliminary results, more samples were sent to be tested. Twenty of the timbers appear to be contemporary and have an estimated felling date in the range AD 1534-47. A further five timbers are broadly contemporary and one of these has a precise felling date of spring AD 1561. The majority of the timbers seem to originate in East Anglia and Southeast England, though there is the possibility some of the later timbers come from further west. Many of the samples provided tree ring matches across several of the planks and framing timbers, indicating that these were made of local Kent oak.

Paolo noted that that we are potentially dealing with a well-used vessel, with timbers on its keel from a period of at least 20 years.  

Cross-sectional samples taken from timbers of the Denge Wreck used for Dendrochronology Cross-sectional samples taken from timbers of the Denge Wreck used for Dendrochronology

Cross-sectional samples taken from timbers of the Denge Wreck used for Dendrochronology.

These dendrochronological assessments confirmed that this is an extremely rare discovery of a 16th century shipwreck. There are approximately 500 16th to 17th century recorded wrecks around the coast of Kent and Sussex, of which less than 1% of these reported losses have been discovered on the seabed. Therefore this firmly dated vessel dating to pre AD 1700 is of national importance.

All archaeological sites come with challenges, and it is no surprise that a site as unique as this has challenges just as unique. Check out the next blog in this series to see how archaeologists overcame them.