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The Kinlochbervie Shipwreck

– By Isobel Patience

When Roy Hemming and his fellow members of the RAF Lossiemouth Sub-Aqua Club discovered a piece of sixteenth-century Mediterranean pottery on the seabed off Kinlochbervie in 1997, the find sparked excited speculation that it had arrived there on a ship forming part of the Spanish Armada, the magnificent fleet mustered by Philip II of Spain in 1588 to invade and subdue England and its reigning monarch Elizabeth I. The Armada was made up of over seventy armed galleons accompanied by fifty-seven support ships, and epitomised the power, ambition and international influence of Spain, hampered only by the activities of England under Elizabeth’s rule. Spanish galleons were glorious ships, built both as warships and merchant vessels. During the latter half of the sixteenth century, galleons sailed all over the globe with cargoes of luxury goods. With piracy commonplace on the high seas, galleons armed themselves with heavy-duty brass muzzle-loading cannon to such an extent that merchant ships could be almost indistinguishable from warships. Although the galleon was descended from the oar-driven galley and the bulkier, Spanish ‘nao’, it was propelled by sails and cut through the water with greater ease of handling than its predecessors, and became the benchmark for shipbuilding all over the world. Its characteristics included colourful paintwork featuring heraldic devices, an elegant, high stern and, on the bow, an extension of the forward deck and bulwarks known as a beak-head, providing an advantageous position for handling the spritsail.


For all its size and style, the galleon was no match for the stormy weather that drove the Armada northwards up the east coast of Britain after engaging only briefly with the English navy at Gravelines. The fleet sailed with the wind, following the Scandinavian trade route around the north and west coasts of Scotland into the Atlantic Ocean, with the intention of then returning to Spain. Once again the weather proved to be a mightier foe than Elizabeth’s navy, and many Armada ships never reached home, instead coming to grief off Irish and Scottish coasts. Indeed, it seems that every village on the north-west coast and in the Hebrides has a tale of shipwrecked Spanish sailors settling in the area to marry and raise families of dark-eyed, olive-skinned children.  Documentation charting the fate of the Armada suggests that though up to 67 ships failed to return to Spain, only six remain unaccounted for, and it has been postulated that one of these, a supply ship named the San Gabriel, may be the luckless Kinlochbervie wreck.

The challenge of finding out more was taken up by Channel 4, St Andrew’s University and RAF Lossiemouth, culminating in the underwater dig which was filmed in July 2001 and broadcast as part of the popular ‘Time Team’ television series in January 2002. A reasonable day greeted the arrival of the Channel 4 broadcast unit, divers from the Archaeological Diving Unit (ADU) of St Andrews University and from RAF Lossiemouth’s Sub-Aqua Club, nautical archaeologists, assorted academics and support personnel at Kinlochbervie in July 2001 but, like the sailors of the Spanish Armada, the underwater dig participants were soon to witness the capriciousness of the north-west weather. The wreck site, which lies in unstable conditions at depths of between five and thirty metres on a series of rocky outcrops around four miles south-west of Kinlochbervie, is a protected site in terms of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, requiring divers to apply for a permit before accessing it. It is a dynamic environment and presented what Martin Dean, director of St Andrews University’s Archaeological Diving Unit (ADU), referred to during the Time Team broadcast as a “classic case of rescue archaeology” – a race to find and recover artefacts before they fell prey to the destructive power of the sea.To access, work on and excavate from the wreck site, the team had arrived laden with sophisticated dive technology and equipment, including:

  • a specially-equipped diving vessel, the Scimitar, owned and operated by the Archaeological Diving Unit (ADU) of St Andrew’s University
  • a remotely-operated vehicle, affectionately named Eric, equipped with a video camera, lights and propellers, for scanning the seabed and relaying pictures back up to the Scimitar
  • diving kit featuring a surface supply system of nitrogen-based gas fed from tanks on board, underwater video cameras and umbilical communications links with the Scimitar
  • a sonar acoustics system for pinpointing the location of finds
  • an underwater metal detector and
  • a magnetometer to chart the surface of the seabed.

Coupled with the collective expertise of the team, the outlook for recovering a fascinating variety of finds was an optimistic one, despite the ever-present threat of bad weather closing in and, for the television crew, the knowledge that the marine environment and the paramount need for safety would effectively double the time required to complete and film the business of the dig. All in all, a very different ‘Time Team’ from the norm.

Settling in, the team based itself at the Harbour Office in Kinlochbervie, and made careful preparations for the strictly controlled programme of diving ahead. With all preparations, surveys, measurements, checks and the morning’s team briefing complete, the dive programme could begin in earnest. Two distinct diving styles were employed during the exercise. The professional divers of the ADU operated using sophisticated suits and apparatus including a helmet with a video camera attached and a surface supply system for breathing, whereas the RAF Lossiemouth recreational divers used traditional scuba techniques. Each diving method offered advantages – the enhanced safety and the benefits of communication enjoyed by the ADU divers were complemented by the military-style speed and flexibility of the RAF team. Both sets of divers worked according to exacting safety standards, precise schedules (each dive was restricted to a maximum of 28 minutes) and within a structured plan to locate and bring the maximum number of artefacts back for examination. In fact, around 100 finds were recovered during the exercise. Divers were firstly tasked with locating and recording the exact position of objects of interest and attaching numbered tags to them, with Eric the ROV keeping an eye on them as a safety measure. In terms of the surface recovery licence obtained under the Recovery of Wrecks Act 1973, the team divers were only permitted to take small finds which would be lost or damaged if left on the seabed. Next, at the collection stage, materials were placed in finds trays which were then sealed and raised by rope to the surface. At this stage it was endearing to see among all the impressive gadgetry that finds bags were held together with humble wooden clothes-pegs. Even in the makeshift headquarters set up in the Kinlochbervie Harbour Office, ice-cream cartons and cotton buds sat alongside powerful microscopes, monitors, analytical GIS software and other serious pieces of kit as finds were subjected to the first stage of examination on the road to determining their provenance.

To speed this process, ‘diagnostic pieces’ – those considered most likely be indicative of a particular time, place or culture and so likely to provide the most valuable information – were raised and examined first. By the end of the first day of operations, even the non-divers had had a good wetting as the rain fell steadily, and the team retired to bed with hopes of better weather in the morning. On the morning of the second day, forecasters warned that weather conditions may take a turn for the worse within the next twenty-four hours, thus racking up the pressure to bring in a good haul of finds in the limited time available.

At the end of the second day, although visibility on the seabed was still very good the weather was worsening, casting doubt on the third day’s dive schedule. When the third day of the dig dawned, a fierce westerly gale was rapidly closing in and as a consequence only a limited number of dives were carried out. These were hampered by poor visibility and the swell of the water, even at depths of twenty metres. This proved enormously frustrating for the team, fired by the significance of the materials already recovered. So, what were the end products of all the activity – and how did they help to solve the mystery of the unidentified shipwreck? The catalogue of finds (not all of which were removed from the seabed) included:


  • cannon and cannon balls
  • anchors of generic sixteenth and seventeenth century design
  • four cast-iron guns and shot
  • a depth-sounding lead weight for measuring the depth of water
  • Iberian red micaceous ware including a tripod cooking pot with some residue still present
  • high-quality Italian majolica ware including a near-intact wine ewer and a large fragment of a boat-shaped salt cellar
  • north Italian red earthenware shards and stoneware shards
  • Seville coarseware including an intact olive jar with a stamped rim
  • galley bricks used for building a fire on board and
  • lead sheeting possibly used to patch up the ship’s hull.
Despite the quantity and quality of the finds, some aspects of the wreck were still a puzzle – such as the absence of significant metal finds. This may be explained in part by the theory that the ship may have broken into at least two pieces, and the wreck site comprises only one of these, most likely the bow section. Initial opinion on the age of the finds seemed to favour the possibility of an Armada wreck. However, subsequent dating of the guns and the ‘star’ finds of the underwater dig appear to indicate that the unfortunate vessel was of a slightly later period than the Spanish Armada – possibly a lost Mediterranean trading ship – but the evidence is not conclusive. The lack of bronze cannon further tips the balance against the Armada theory. Although further investigations took place at Kinlochbervie in 2002 and 2003, there may still be materials from this turbulent period in European history lying on the seabed waiting to be found. Permits under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and associated regulations are readily obtainable and diving enthusiasts will be sure to find a welcome considerably warmer than the weather from the people of Kinlochbervie. In all, approximately 100 finds were located and recovered in July 2001, each one helping to provide answers to the questions the dig team had set itself. Arguably an almost-intact wine ewer was the ‘star’ find of the excavation, a luxury item exquisitely made and lavishly decorated, part of “the best collection of Italian renaissance pottery excavated from an archaeological context in this country,” according to pottery expert Duncan Brown in his Time Team interview. The wine ewer, made of high-grade Italian majolica (tin-glazed pottery) of a type created to order for the great and the good of Mediterranean society, features ten fluted panels bizarrely decorated with a depiction of female satyrs, flowers, snails, insects and cameos, painted in orange, blue, black and yellow against a background of white. Its remarkable state of preservation may be due to its having been transported in a wooden packing case which slowly broke up on the seabed but nevertheless protected its precious cargo for many years. Initially, it was suggested that the piece originated in the workshops of the Patanazzi family of Urbino, Italy, but further research identified Tuscan workshops at Pisa or Montelupo as the more likely source. Disappointingly for adherents of the Armada hypothesis, it has also been suggested that the ewer dates from no earlier than 1590. The intact olive jar recovered from the wreck site provides a sharp contrast to the self-indulgence of the majolica ewer. The jar was a basic workaday item, an example of Seville coarseware with a stamped mark on the rim – a ‘star’ find principally by virtue of the excellent condition in which it was found. The stamped rim hammers another nail into the coffin of Armada romantics, as it is noted that stamped rims were not present among the jars from the 1596 San Pedro wreck, but did feature in those from the 1622 wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. In the ‘Time Team’ programme, the jar is shown being picked up from its position on the seabed and packed in a specially-constructed container by a nervous Phil Harding, supervised by perhaps an even more nervous Martin Dean as the pair nursed their precious find to the surface. The wine ewer and olive jar, together with the entire collection of finds, are now in the care of the National Museums of Scotland.
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