MHG31275 - Kinlochbervie shipwreck


The remains of a wreck of a merchant vessel, probably from the Iberian peninsula. The vessel was probably wrecked during the early 17th century.

Type and Period (1)

  • WRECK (Wrecked, 17th Century - 1601 AD to 1625 AD (at some time))

Protected Status

  • None recorded

Full Description

Investigated by the ADU and the Time Team in 2001.

If this site is associated with the intended Spanish invasion of England in 1588 then it will be an important addition to those known in British and Irish waters. If this site is not from the Spanish Armada then the analysis will give an insight into a little known aspect of maritime trade. This will be of great importance to the understanding of the economic climate of the time and the nature and extent of the trade network of the 16th Century. <1>

Created automatically by NMRS Register Utility
User: Admin, Date: Wed 13 Oct 2004
NC15SE 8001 1863 5399
N58 26.213 W5 6.43

(Location cited as 58 26.213'N 005 06.430'W). This wreck was discovered in 1998 by members of RAF Lossiemouth Sub-Aqua Club, a ceramic ewer then recovered being identified by NMS as grotesque Majolica ware of Italian origin and dating from the second half of the 16th century AD. Material discovered (but not recovered) subsequently includes three iron guns of relatively large size, two anchors, pieces of lead sheet, pottery fragments and firebricks. No structural remains have apparently been identified.
The site covers a range of dynamic environments at the base of a cliff and a depth of about 27m.
Information from Mr M Dean (Director, Archaeological Diving Unit), visited 24-5 June 2000.

Members of RAF Lossiemouth Sub-Aqua club discovered the site in 1998 and a ceramic ewer was recovered and declared to the Receiver of Wreck. The find was also sent to the National Museums of Scotland for identification and their opinion was that it was Italian, from the latter half of the 16th Century and could well be linked to an Armada wreck. This encouraged the team to continue their investigation and on subsequent visits they discovered more material including two large iron cannons, two anchors, pieces of broken pottery and firebricks.
The ADU carried out diving operations and a side-scan sonar survey of the site in June 2000. A magnetometer and seabed classification surveys were also conducted, the former without success. The archaeological material is located in spectacular underwater scenery and includes three iron guns, one perched on a narrow ledge on an underwater cliff face. There are also two anchors at the base of the cliff and parts of another in shallower water inshore of the cliff face. Pieces of lead sheet, fire bricks and wood were noted on the site together with fragments of unusually decorated pottery and course earthenware, including a complete olive jar of probable 16th century date. The finders had previously raised an almost intact tin-glazed ewer which Godfrey Evans, Curator of European Art at the National Museums of Scotland identified as an interesting piece of high grade majolica decorated with grotesques. Such pieces are thought to have been made in the later part of the 16th century in the workshops of the Fontana and Patanazzi families in Urbino, Italy, for Spanish noblemen and this has led to speculation that this could be an Armada wreck. Fragments of a number of other elaborately decorated majolica grotesque ware vessels were observed on the site. The relatively large size of the guns (2.6m long) suggests that the vessel would have been capable of deploying more than the number so far found and it is possible that the known site represents only part of the original ship.
Information from Mr M Dean (Director, Archaeological Diving Unit), November 2000.

Designation order 2001 No. 242 made 19 June 2001 covers the area within 300m of position 58 26.213'N 005 06.430'W.
NMRS, MS/829/31.

The wreck occupies an exposed situation within a cove 4 miles SW of Kinlochbervie. The upper part of the site (contexts 3 and 4) comprises a rocky outcrop at about 4m depth which steps down into a gully at a depth of about 14m. Two anchors and a cannon lie within a sand- and gravel-filled depression in a an area of high-energy environment within the surf zone. The main concentration of remains comprises two distinct groups of artefacts within an area measuring about 22 by 8m at the foot of an underwater cliff and at a depth of between 25 and 30m. The main deposit of the pottery assemblage is scattered over bedrock, in rock crevices and in gaps between the boulders. Mobile sand has accumulated in places, while less mobile deposits of gravel and other materials are found in the deeper gulleys. The flat sandy seabed (a moderate to low energy environment) is found at a depth of 34m.
Further fieldwork (by P Robertson and others) over a period of two weeks in May 2002 aimed to locate further portions of the site (particularly within the kelp zone), to delineate its extent, and to identify diagnostic features of specific artefacts (notably the guns and anchors). It was also intended to investigate the site formation processes, to establish the value of various site monitoring techniques and to explore the potential of buried archaeological material.
Diving was possible at all states of the tide but some time was lost to bad weather; both surface demand and air systems were was used. Recording was by planning frame and DSM, on the basis on established control points.
The objectives were achieved through diver searches (supplementary to the caesium magnetometer searches carried out by ADU in 2001) which established the boundaries of the remains. The identification of a sounding lead, two anchors and a gun in the shallows confirms that at least one portion of the ship reached this area, possibly after striking one of the many offshore skerries (which have not been investigated).
Four iron anchors and two cast iron guns were recorded in situ; a report of a further gun in shallow water remains unconfirmed. Other finds numbered 115, predominantly brick, slag, tile and pottery. A metal disc and a piece of lead sheet were also found. All the finds are currently held for conservation at the laboratories of the National Museums of Scotland.
The anchors were apparently of two sizes, with shanks measuring 3.15 and 3.5 or 3.7m in length respectively. Made from at least two pieces of bar-welded wrought iron, each comprises a shank (made from at least two pieces), arms (welded to the shank) and flukes (welded to the arms). The tops of the shanks swell into undefined nuts to retain the anchor-rings and two tenons (just below this) served to retain the stocks. Their size, position and pairing suggest an identification as two pairs of bower and sheet anchors, while they may be attributed to the 16th or 17th centuries AD.
The cannon included examples of saker and minion types, the remains of carriages surviving in three cases. No reliable date can be inferred, but these pieces would be consistent with the armament expected of a merchant vessel of medium to large size. A ship armed exclusively with cast iron guns would usually be considered to post-date the Armada, falling within the first quarter of the 17th century or later.
The brick- and tile-finds were closely-spaced (although a limited sample) and so probably represent the galley rather than the remains of ballast. This suggestion is consistent with the presence of olive jars and the tripod pipkin (recovered in 2001) which bore evidence of charring. The dimensions of four complete bricks were established.
Of the 67 ceramic finds, 18 were identified as maiolica [Majolica] ware and 43 as Iberian coarseware. The pottery was affected by biological action (on the upper surfaces) rather than by mechanical rolling (with consequential damage to the edges). The pottery finds display a random scatter, with little evidence of movement since sinking. This may suggest that the impact took place in shallow water on the rocks, the contents of the vessel being then dispersed over the cliff. The Majolica ware was presumably carried as cargo or in passenger baggage, rather than for use on board.
Various experiments aimed to evaluate the condition of iron artefacts and to investigate the dynamics of the site environment. A hand drill was used to drill a 6mm diameter hole through the concretion and graphitised layer around the guns and anchors, the corrosion potential and the pH of the solution in contact with the iron being then established. Site dynamics were investigated through visual inspection of potsherds, use of a standard oxidation and reduction potential (ORP) electrode, and the placing of sediment test stakes and bottom drifters.
The hard concretion layer on the iron artefacts was found to be less than 3mm thick, although gun 2 demonstrated a corrosion depth greater than 110mm. The corrosion product on the anchors proved more solid than that on the guns, and all artefacts were apparently bathed in a solution between ten and a hundred times more acidic than the surrounding seawater. The remaining iron in the large iron artefacts is evidently unstable and subject to active corrosion.
The shallower part of the site was covered in thick kelp. By contrast and contrary to expectations, the seabed and lower part of the site (below a depth of about 15m) were found to be stable and a low-energy environment. The release of drifters revealed no significant water movement while probes (where these could be inserted) revealed no sediment accretion or erosion during the period of study. The apparent absence of biological activity in this zone may be part of the cause of the relatively fast corrosion of the iron artefacts.
Limited excavation within the deeper part of the site served to demonstrate that the bottom sediments would not support the survival of organic remains but that numerous small gullies may remain buried.
Attention is drawn to the lack of local awareness of the Designation of the site, and consideration of a Visitor Scheme is suggested.
The wreck is considered significant for holding the largest assemblage of Italian pottery recovered from an archaeological site in Scotland, and also the largest group of grotesque maiolica ever recovered in Britain. An origin in Montelupo or (less probably) Deruta, Faenza, Urbino or Pisa may be suggested, within the later 16th or earlier 17th centuries AD. This assemblage is unlikely to derive from a wreck of the Armada (1588), and contains none of the 'common denominator' tablewares found in wrecks of the Spanish fleet. Only the olive jars found on this wreck are also found on Armada ships, although the Armada examples are typically buff with a creamy slip as against the reddish examples found at Kinlochbervie. Accordingly, a date 'around the first quarter of the seventeenth century' (rather than earlier) is tentatively suggested for this wreck. The ship 'clearly had strong Mediterranean origins' and 'probably originated in the Iberian or Mediterranean basin'.
The identified remains are interpreted as those of the galley and holds of what was probably a merchant vessel rather than a specialist warship. Further finds may be expected over an considerable area (suggested radius 0.5km) around.
(Typescript report includes summary of finds, drawings and tables of dimensions of anchors and cannon by D McElvogue, table of dimensions of bricks, location plan for site monitoring experiments and suggestions for site management. Results of historical, documentary and chart-based research are also summarised, and suggestions are made for further research).
D McElvogue 2002.
NMRS, MS/829/55 and MS/829/56.

The indicated location falls within a plethora of skerries (most notably the Dubh Sgeirean) off the headland below Cnoc Gorm Mor, and about 4.5km SW of Kinlochbervie. The rocks drop to a sandy seabed at a charted depth of between 21 and 25m above the main drop-off into the deep waters of the North Minch. The location is open to the North Minch (to the W and SW) and to the Atlantic (to the NW).
Information from RCAHMS (RJCM), 14 October 2002.
HO Chart no. 1785 (1993).

Sources/Archives (2)



Grid reference Centred NC 18643 54022 (80m by 79m) (Surveyed)
Map sheet NC15SE
Geographical Area SUTHERLAND

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