The wreck of the Swan
Colin Martin on a project that illustrates the value of nautical archaeology
On 5 September 1653 four merchant vessels and a small warship dropped anchor off Duart Castle in the Sound of Mull. The transports carried eight companies of soldiers from Cromwell’s New Model Army commanded by Colonel Ralph Cobbett, who had gone there to besiege the stronghold of the fiercely Royalist chief of Clan Maclean. The escorting warship Swan lay to seaward so her guns could protect the disembarking troops. Her captain was Edward Tarleton, one of Cromwell’s ‘tarpaulin’ officers, chosen for his seafaring experience rather than his social connections. He was a working skipper and head of a Liverpool mercantile family; he subsequently became the city’s mayor. The landings went smoothly because the Macleans had prudently decamped to the hills, and the soldiers, having taken the castle, spent the next two weeks strengthening its defences and scouring the neighbourhood for fugitive Royalists, provisions and booty.
But on 23 September disaster struck. A gale drove two of the merchantmen from their moorings and threw them ashore on the fringing beach. Swan, further out to sea on the exposed flank, struck Duart Point broadside on and sank. She settled on the seabed heeled to port, and when the upper works collapsed her remains became buried in sand brought in by the strong currents.
By 1979 nothing was visible above the sea floor except eight concreted guns and an anchor. These were spotted by John Dadd, a naval diver on a training exercise. Realising that the site was of historic importance he reported his find to the relevant authorities, and in due course the wreck was protected (it is currently part of a Marine Protected Area and may be visited by divers, although nothing may be disturbed or removed). Some years later erosion revealed wooden structure and artefacts, and in 1992 the Institute of Maritime Archaeology at St Andrews University was invited to undertake a controlled rescue excavation and subsequent restabilisation of the site. All finds have been lodged with the National Museums of Scotland.
Archaeology under water is conducted with the same rigour and methodologies as on land, adapted to the watery environment. A grid framework with accurately positioned datum points is established, and careful surveys are made of all features and finds. These are refined into a detailed three-dimensional map of the wreck and its surroundings. This enables us to understand the wreck as it today, and establish the processes by which it has metamorphosed from the intact and functioning entity it once was. We then work backwards to reconstruct as much as we can about the original ship and its people before it became a wreck.
Shipwrecks are especially rewarding for archaeologists. A living ship is a complex system designed for a purpose – whether war, commerce, transport, fishing, or even pleasure. Its remains can reveal aspects of its design, proportions, how it was built and operated, and the lives of those on board. Much of this evidence comes from the artefacts found on a wreck, which when properly analysed add to our broader knowledge of the period and activities in question. These may include such specialisations as the navigation, medicine and craft skills associated with the running of the ship. Personal and domestic artefacts reflect life on board and the material culture of the parent society ashore. And since all items were in use at the moment of sinking it provides a fixed point for the study of how particular artefact types have changed through time. This in turn helps to place finds from other sites whose contexts are not so tightly dated. For example, smoking was one of a seventeenth-century sailor’s few comforts, and many of Swan’s clay pipes bear the mark of a Newcastle pipemaker. This mark is rare outside Newcastle, and apart from the Swan examples it has only been recorded at St Andrews, Orkney and Belfast. We know that Cromwellian troops were active in these places during the 1650s and that Newcastle was their main supply base, so the pipes presumably indicate troop movements at the time. Then again, wreck collections usually provide a much greater variety of items than most land sites. On land, most reusable or valuable objects have been removed: on a wreck, however, the exotic and commonplace go hand in hand, and in terms of the information it holds, a rat skull can be as valuable as a gold coin. Organic materials in particular – wood, leather, cordage, bone and the like – are also usually absent from terrestrial contexts because they dry out and disintegrate; but if waterlogged and buried in sediment they often survive in remarkable condition.
Shipwreck archaeology is often conflated with treasure hunting, but nothing could be further from the truth. Irrespective of its monetary value everything in a wreck is precious, because each find has its own tale to tell; and in combination their individual stories are vastly greater, because all are integral parts of a wider whole – the reality of a ship and its world at a moment in time. This is the real treasure of historic shipwrecks, and it can only be unlocked by careful archaeology.
The Swan wreck, even though only partially excavated, tells us much about her purpose and times. The greater part of the lower hull survives, pinned by the stone ballast carried in the hold. The geological origins of the stones include south-west Scotland (where Swan was based), the Inveraray region (where she spent much of her earlier life) and the Hebridean island of Lewis (which she had visited on her final voyage). Within the ship’s collapsed aftercastle much of the cabin interior is preserved, together with pieces of decorative carving from the transom. The binnacle and compasses have survived. One of her iron guns has been recovered, with its carriage. The gun bears the initials of John Browne, a leading English gunfounder who worked at Horsmonden in Kent. He cast a specific type of light gun, a drake, which had a tapered chamber and was made of what he termed ‘extraordinary’ metal whose composition he kept secret – and for which he charged double. This is the only iron drake of his known to survive, and analysis has revealed Browne’s secret and explained the gun’s remarkable condition: he knew exactly
what substances to add to neutralise its corrosive impurities.
The bones of one of Edward Tarleton’s seamen were scattered among the remains of the aft cabin. We know he was a topman through impact distortions in his thigh joints almost certainly caused by repeatedly dropping onto the deck after working aloft. We also know he was a Yorkshireman because isotope analysis of his teeth reveals the source of water he drank as a child. His remains are now buried in consecrated ground outside Duart Castle, overlooking the wreck of his ship.
Further information can be accessed at: canmore.org.uk/site/80637. Dr Colin Martin is a retired Reader in Maritime Archaeology, University of St Andrews.