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Shifting sands reveal wreckage of history

by Maev Kennedy, Heritage Correspondent

A team of archaeological spent this weekend in the murk of one of the most feared stretches of British coastal waters, looking for evidence of a 300 year old tragedy.

The Goodwin Sands, off the Kent coast, were called "the ship swallower" in one 17th centruy text. In one terrible night, in 1703, they swallowed an entire English fleet, and at least 1,100 lives.

In the spring of 1999, the sands shifted again, and exposed the stern of the Stirling Castle one of the four Royal Navy men-of-war lost in the 'Great Storm' of 1703. The battered timbers of the flag ship 'Mary', the 'Northumberland' and the 'Restoration', are also locked in the sands, along with thousands of other shipwrecks, and the remains of unnumbered sailors.

The archaeologically trained divers from the Ramsgate Seadive Organisation, joined by a team from the United States, will be surveying the wreck until mid July. But they will be taking care not to add their own names to the sands' grim inventory.

"Diving conditions are terrible down there - it's not deep but you can hardly see a foot in front of your nose in the murk, " says team photographer and diver Norman Temple. "We've been studyding the tide tables like bibles - we've got about 45 minutes safely down there between tides".

One chart, listing only the recorded wrecks of named ships in the last 400 years, has almost 1,000 names. Countless other smaller local boats were also lost. The constantly shifting sands and charts are useful for no more than a season - are exposed at low tides, and solid enough to walk on. If a boat is driven on to them once they are covered in water escape is almost imossible, as the hull settles inexorably into the sand.

The toll continues with new wrecks most years, even of sailors who have known the danger all their lives; in a storm in November 1954 the south Goodwin lightship was lost on the sands with all seven crew.

Many of the disasters were watched from the ports of Broadstairs, Deal and Ramsgate by helpless witnesses. Daniel Defoe was among those who recorded the Great Storm of 1703, when only one man escaped the Mary "by swimming from wreck to wreck". Defoe records, without comment, that the captain and the purser also escaped, since they were conveniently on dry land. Dozens of smaller vessels, sheltering in the lee of the warships, were also lost when the storm wrenched the boats from their moorings and drove them out to sea.

The warships were rediscovered in 1979, when a local fisherman's nets snapped on what turned out to be the Stirling Castle. divers recovered a wealth of objects, now in Ramsgate museum, including a sailor's leather hat, the captain's pewter plate and spoon with his initials, JJ, and an ordinary sailor's flat wooden platter with his scratched initial R. The captain's initials allowed John Johnson and the ship to be identified.

Many questions about the construction of the great wooden men-of-war remain unanswered, which the divers hope to answer in the next few weeks.

Marine archaeologists, including Peter Marsden of the Shipwreck Centre in Hastings, are increasingly worried about underwater treasure hunters pillaging protected wreck sites.

The Ramsgate team - paying its own expenses except for a small grant from Thanet council - are diving under government licence on a strictly "look but don't touch" basis. They will bring up nothing except information. A live underwater camera link from the site is planned for an international maritime archaeology conference next year.

"Far from treasure hunting, we're all bringing our own treasure to the project and sinking it - it's a costly business," Norman Temple said. "With the advances in underwater photography and surveying there's no justification for bringing things up - I'd sink the Mary Rose again, myself.

This site isn't just a jolly day out, it a cemetary, and all the time we're very aware of the respect we owe to all the dead who are still down there."

Guardian, Monday June 28th 1999

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