Dendrochronology: maritime heritage & shipwrecks

Professor Nigel Nayling

The application of dendrochronology to characterise and analysis wooden shipwreck remains is the subject of an ongoing research programme, combining expertise in underwater archaeology with the capacities of the UWTSD dendrochronology laboratory. This approach has been applied in a range of circumstances including analysis of ship finds which have been subjected to terrestrial excavation, recording and recovery, where dendrochronology has complemented detailed recording of individual timbers (the Newport Medieval ship is an exemplar of this approach). In other cases, dendrochronology has been employed to assist in making informed management decisions about the designation of historic wrecks in UK territorial waters (including the Norman’s Bay wreck off the south coast of England, and the supposed ‘Diamond’ off the West Wales coast).

Protocols have been developed to include tree ring analysis as part of broader research projects where dendrochronology complements in situ recording of underwater shipwrecks, and analysis of their excavated artefactual material. In Bermuda, in the final season of the excavation of the Warwick, which sank in October 1619, extensive sampling of the fully exposed hull remains and analysis using a mobile dendrochronology laboratory indicated that trees used in the ship's construction were very mature English oaks felled after the summer of AD 1617. A similar approach is being employed in Tobago, where the Rockley Bay Research Project includes dendrochronological analysis of hull remains from a number of shipwrecks located in Scarborough Bay, some of which may be related to a naval engagement between French and Dutch vessels in AD 1677, which led to the loss of 12 ships. In Brittany, sampling has recently been undertaken during re- excavation of the mediaeval Aber Wrac’h 1 clinker-built ship, and also during re-examination of the intertidally located Trez Malaouen 2 ship dating to the 16th century.

Delivery of tree ring analysis of shipwrecks requires collaboration with heritage agencies such as English Heritage and Cadw; and collaboration with archaeological diving teams including those meeting the objectives of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 (e.g. Wessex Archaeology), and delivering archaeological research of shipwrecks as part of wider charitable objectives (e.g. Maritime Archaeology Trust).

Engagement with the wider sports diving community is achieved through delivery of courses in Dendrochronology as part of the Nautical Archaeology Society training programme.

Funding is gratefully acknowledged from:

  • English Heritage
  • Cadw
  • Rockley Bay Research Project (Digital Globe Foundation, The United States Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, Institute of Nautical Archaeology Claude Duthuit Archaeology Grant, Geos Foundation)
  • Le Département des Recherches Archéologiques Subaquatiques et Sous-Marines (DRASSM, France)

Nayling, N. 2014 Oak Dendrochronology, in J.Auer and T.J. Maarleveld (eds) The Gresham Ship Project: A 16th-Century Merchantman Wrecked in the Princes Channel, Thames Estuary Volume I: Excavation and Hull Studies, British Archaeological Reports 602, 43-6

Nayling, N. and Susperregi, J. 2014 Iberian Dendrochronology and the Newport Medieval Ship, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 43:2, 279-291

Domínguez-Delmás, M., Nayling, N., Wazny, T., Loureiro, V. & Lavier, C. 2013 Dendrochronological Dating and Provenancing of Timbers from the Arade 1 Shipwreck, Portugal, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42.1, 118-136.

Nayling, N., 2011, Dendrochronology, in Momber, G et al (eds) Mesolithic Occupation at Bouldnor Cliff and the Submerged Prehistoric Landscapes of the Solent, CBA Research Report 164