Archaeologists Make Deadly Discovery at Bottom of 800-Year-Old Shipwreck

By: Alyssa Miller | Published: Jun 22, 2024

The bottom of some of the largest bodies of water in the world can hold mysteries lost to time. Sometimes, those long-lost mysteries can see the light of day again thanks to archaeologists.

One of the most recent discoveries made by British archaeologists was medieval gravestones near an ancient shipwreck.

800 Year Old Gravestones Discovered

Bournemouth University announced the discovery in a press release, stating that they found the gravestones in Studland Bay, off the coast of Dorset.

Grave stones at the Graves at the Carlisle Indian Boarding School Cemetery

Source: JL/Google Reviews

They believe the gravestones have been lying at the bottom of the English Channel for nearly 800 years. Shockingly, the gravestones remained well preserved in the murky waters.

The Gravestones Withstood Time

Pictures show that the gravestones have been well preserved over the centuries, although barnacles cover one of the slabs.

An underwater image of a pirate shipwreck

Source: Wurger GoodFon

“The slabs, carved from Purbeck marble, were amongst the cargo of England’s oldest historic shipwreck, which sank off the Dorset coast during the reign of Henry III in the thirteenth century,” the press release explained (via Fox News).

The Weight of the Graves

For nearly two hours, maritime archaeologists worked to bring the stones back to the surface. One of the stones measures nearly 5 feet (one and a half meters) and weighs an estimated 154.32 pounds (70 kilograms).

Archaeologists say the gravestones weigh hundreds of pounds.

Source: Bournemouth University

“The other, much larger slab is in two pieces, with a combined length of two meters and a weight of around 200 kilograms,” the press release states. The slabs weigh approximately 154 pounds and 440 pounds, respectively.

Who Were the Gravestones For?

The markings on the gravestones indicate that King Henry III intended the graves for important members of his clergy. Henry III, who was the son of King John, took the throne in 1216 and ruled until he died in 1272.

The ancient gravestones were likely made for prominent members of the clergy.

Source: Bournemouth University

The statement added, “Both carvings Christian crosses, which were popular in the thirteenth century, and the research team believes they were intended to be coffin lids or crypt monuments for high-status individuals in the clergy.”

The Reason Why the Graves Were Underwater

Tom Cousins, an archaeologist who led the study, explains that the stones may have been transported on the ship where they were found, which is why they were discovered in the depths of the English Channel.

A photograph of a shocked researcher

Source: Freepik

“The wreck went down during the height of the Purbeck stone industry, and the grave slabs we have here were a very popular monument for bishops and archbishops across all the cathedrals and monasteries in England at the time,” he explained.


A Common Gravestone of the Time

Cousins states that they found the type of stone the slabs were made from in Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, and Salisbury Cathedral.

A statue of King Henry III of England

Source: World History Encyclopedia

Fortunately, this study found no bodies beneath the gravestones, suggesting that these gravestones never reached their final destination.


An Answer to a Longstanding Debate

“Although Purbeck marble was quarried near Corfe Castle [in Dorset], there has always been a debate about how much work was done here and how much was done in London,” Cousins added.

multiple notes with question mark and a magnifying glass

“Now we know they were definitely carving them here, but they hadn’t been polished into the usual shiny finish at the time they sank so there is still more we can learn.”


The Graves Will Be on Display for the Public

Now, the team of archaeologists from Bournemouth University is desalinating the gravestones and conserving them before displaying them to the public next year.

Exterior of the British Museum in London, England, with visitors going in and out

Source: Britannica

The university also noted that they recently discovered the significance of the shipwreck sites, uncovering more about Henry III’s reign.


The Significance of the Site

The press release stated, “Tom and a team from the University discovered the site of the Mortar Wreck in 1982 as an ‘obstruction,’ initially assumed to be a pile of rubble on the seabed.

Underwater photograph of a shipwreck at the bottom of an ocean

Source: Shutterstock

“Its significance was not realized until 2019, when, on the suggestion of local charter skipper Trevor Small, they dived to the site and uncovered the secrets lying under the sand.”


The Study of the Mortar Wreck

The site of the Mortar Wreck was heavily studied in 2019, unveiling a plethora of cargo, which included grinding marble mortars and grave slabs.

An image of a shipwreck under the Atlantic Ocean

Source: Wikimedia

“The archaeological significance is the ship as a whole and what it can tell us about trade and life in the 13th century, as well as ship technology,” Cousins told Newsweek.


Preserving History

Today, Cousins and his team are still researching the shipwreck sites, uncovering new details about trade during Henry III’s time as king.

Exterior of the UK Supreme Court building in England

Source: The Supreme Court

In England, the government protects the shipwreck site because it is the oldest known wreck with a surviving hull.