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Painting of the "Flying Cloud" off the Isle of Wight, England.

Archaeologists to use dog DNA to investigate the mysterious Cattewater Wreck

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The Cattewater Wreck lies in mud on the seabed at Cattewater Close near the entrance to Sutton Harbor in Plymouth Sound. The ship sank in the early 16 th century and its remains became the first protected wreck following an underwater investigation in 1973. A number of artifacts, including cannons, have been recovered, although none of them have given scientists any clue as to the ships identity or the circumstances of its sinking.

However, the ship is thought to have been British and based in Plymouth on the basis that the ballast was sourced locally. The only other sources of information consist of an isotype of fish bones, discovered to have come from the North Atlantic, and the body of a dog. The scientists are now using DNA from the dog to try and discover more about the ship.

The dog is thought to be the only known casualty of the sinking and new information from analysis of its DNA could provide important clues as to where the mystery ship originated from said Martin Read, speaking to The Plymouth Herald . Mr. Read is lecturer in maritime archaeology at the Plymouth University’s School of Marine Science and Engineering.

The wreck was discovered after dredging brought up timbers and gun parts and the National Maritime Museum and the Department for the Environment decided to investigate it. The remains lie on the seabed on an east to west alignment for a distance of 20 meters (65 feet). Pottery, worked wood and a brass pin and buckle were among the artifacts brought to the surface. Other items included scraps of leather, rope textiles, animal bone and fragments of wrought iron cannons. The cannons have been preserved at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery .

The Cattewater is said to have looked something like this replica of this Croatian trading ship (15th and 16th century).

The Cattewater is said to have looked something like this replica of this Croatian trading ship (15th and 16th century). ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The wood was identified as having a shape similar to that of timber from Tudor period flooring and the general construction was of the carvel style in which timbers are flush with each other rather than overlapping. The use of tree nails (wooden pegs) and nails in the fastenings pre-dates the first manuals in ship construction as does the fish-tailed flooring. Some guns brought up from the site in 1977 have a bore of 55 mm and were identified as ‘serpentines’, small bore guns that were mounted on swivels and which were obsolete by the 16 th century.

Naval artillery: A cast bronze culverin (front) and a wrought iron port piece (back), modern reproductions.

Naval artillery: A cast bronze culverin (front) and a wrought iron port piece (back), modern reproductions. Public Domain

The pottery was dated to 1520-1620 and the keelson is similar to that of the Mary Rose. The leather finds included a purse conforming to a Tudor design.

An investigation of the material found at the wreck site, and the information gathered about it, was conducted between 1975 and 1978, known as the Cattewater Wreck Archive Project . It was funded by grants provided by the English Heritage National Heritage Protection Commissions Program. The material archive from this project is kept at Plymouth City Museum.

The ship was a wooden vessel, probably with three masts, which seems to have been an early 16 th-century armed merchantman. If so it would have weighed between 200 and 300 tons. It was probably an offshoot of the developmental design revolution in naval ship building that occurred between 1480 and 1525 combined with the appearance of the first English mathematical formula for ship architecture in 1580. Plymouth University conducted a survey in 2006 using a sub-bottom profiler and again in 2007 with a multi-beam echo sounder, sidescan sonar and a caesium magnetometer.

Model of a typical merchantman of the 16th and 17th centuries .

Model of a typical merchantman of the 16 th and 17 th centuries . ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

More than 7,000 shipwrecks lie in waters off the coast of South West England. This particular ship wasn’t a well-known vessel like the Coronation or the Mary Rose. A Portuguese ship sank in the area in 1540 after hitting the German Rock but charts identify the location of that vessel being in the Tamar, not Plymouth Sound. A ship called The St James of the Groyne sank in a great storm on 17 th January 1494, breaking up on the shore. Its size was consistent to that of the Cattewater Wreck but there isn’t enough evidence to say anything further about this. Another possibility is that the wreck could have been one of a number of Dutch ships confiscated in 1597, one of which did indeed sink in the Cattewater, or it could be The Roebuck which was wrecked in 1694 while lining up for an expedition to the Western Isles under the command of the Earl of Essex, but again nothing is certain.

The wreck of the Copeland at South Shields, England, 2 November 1861.

The wreck of the Copeland at South Shields, England, 2 November 1861. Public Domain

Featured image: Painting of the "Flying Cloud" off the Isle of Wight, England. Public Domain

By Robin Whitlock

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