Alum Bay Wrecks

Introduction to Alum Bay

Alum Bay is located on the north coast at the exteme west of the Isle of Wight (see map). Needles Point and surrounding rocks mark the western end of Alum Bay, while the eastern end is defined by Hatherwood Point. In between, the coastline is formed from high chalk cliffs that describe a steady curve. To the northwest is the Needles Channel, where tidal currents can reach four knots. Beyond this lies the edge of the 'Shingles' gravel bank, which, like the Needles, is a notorious hazard for shipping.

The geography surrounding Alum Bay has contributed greatly to its maritime archaeological interest. The bay forms the first area sheltered from south westerly winds once past the Needles and en-route to the western Solent. Many vessels have 'fallen prey' to the Needles, the submerged chalk ridges nearby, or to the Shingles bank. Sections of these vessels and their artefacts have floated away from the wrecking site to sink in the nearest area of quiet water, often carried there by the tidal eddies and counter streams that flow along the Alum Bay shore. This wrecking process has contributed to the submerged heritage to be found in Alum Bay.

Historical Ship Losses

Historically, there has been a busy nature to the waters around Alum Bay and the Needles, which lead to the western Solent and onwards to the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. Passage past the Needles and through Hurst Channel offered a tempting, yet risky, short-cut for ships sailing to the Solent from the west. The earliest evidence for shipwrecks comes from the Roman period, in the form of a coin scatter at the Needles which probably came from a wrecked sailing vessel. Historical accounts record the loss of vessels throughout the medieval period and there is a dramatic increase in the records of lost vessels from the 17th century onwards. From this period historical records are increasingly well preserved and publications such as the Lloyd's List ensured a standard approach to record keeping.

Vessels lost in the area of Alum Bay and the Needles include a fleet of Dutch East Indiamen, numerous merchant ships, small local vessels and Royal Navy warships. One of the latter vessels was HMS Pomone, wrecked on the Needles in 1811, a section of which has settled in Alum Bay and has been identified as the Alum Bay 1 wreckage

Archaeological Discoveries

The earliest discovery of the archaeological sites in Alum Bay is unclear, but it seems likely that sites have been known about by local divers for many years. The site of Alum Bay I was brought to the attention of archaeologists in 1991 and work has been conducted on the site at periodic intervals ever since with concerted work done by the HWTMA since 1998. The site of Alum Bay 2 was first discovered in 2001 and initial work on this set of shipwreck remains took place between 2001 and 2003, with further survey, sampling or monitoring of the site in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013. In addition to the two pieces of shipwreck, archaeological investigation of Alum Bay has also entailed conducting searches of the bay by divers and with side scan sonar. This work has uncovered a range of material, including a gun carriage wheel, stone cannon shot and the tangled iron remains of Alum Bay's Victorian pier.

As with many HWTMA projects, a wide range of people have been involved with this fieldwork, both above and below the water. This has included local divers and dive clubs, students and volunteers, many of whom have taken part in the NAS training scheme and have helped in setting up and testing the dive trail that was launched on May 20th 2005 as part of an initiative funded by English Heritage, Leader + and the Local Heritage Initiative. Unfortunately the Alum Bay Dive Trail is currently inactive but you can click here for a short video showing the site and the trail.

Searching the Bay

Over the years many divers have told the HWTMA about pieces of wreck or artefacts that they have seen on dives in Alum Bay, but few of these sightings have any positional accuracy. The potential importance of such reports were reinforced during the Receiver of Wreck's 2001 Wreck Amnesty, when several finds from Alum Bay were reported. Knowing that there are several more wrecks in the bay has prompted more widespread directed searches during HWTMA work within Alum Bay. Several areas and features were targeted, utilizing a variety of search methods with positions being fixed using GPS.

The eastern edge of the bay came under close scrutiny as the remains of what is known as the 'Tool Wreck' were searched for, without success. It seems likely that the remains of this vessel, which was wrecked during the mid-20th century have now been covered by sand.

There is a submerged reef running along the length of the bay, behind which the sites of Alum Bay 1 and Alum Bay 2 nestle. Pinnacles of this reef that are charted come close to the surface, these have been targeted for spot searches. To do this, shot-lines were dropped and their positions marked with a GPS. Following this, circular or pendulum searches were carried out and areas or objects of interest were recorded by divers. 

Not surprisingly the western end of Alum Bay, closest to the Needles, has proved more productive for finding evidence of ships, their fittings and artefacts. It appears that larger buoyant sections of shipwreck tend to float further into the inner bay, leaving smaller pieces and artefacts scattered closer to the Needles. Volunteer divers on board local dive boat Wight Spirit skippered by Dave Wendes have continued searches in this area of the bay.

Searchers at the western end of Alum Bay discovered a wooden wheel from a cannon carriage, known as a 'truck'. This example is made from an exotic hardwood and a sample has been taken for analysis to establish the exact species of tree. The divers who found the wheel generously donated it to the Trust and it is now on display at the nearby Sunken Secrets Exhibition at Fort Victoria on the Isle of Wight. 

In 2010 there was a programme of side scan sonar surveys in the bay to identify anomalies that may represent wreckage. This work was conducted from the vessel Halcyon, which was then able to deploy divers to ground-truth the targets identified. This work sought to add to knowledge of the previously reported scatters of material, and a number of pieces of wreck material were found during the week.

Shipwreck remains are not the only type of site in the bay; the side scan sonar revealed interesting images of the remains and distribution of the former pier in Alum Bay, follow up dives confirmed the nature and condition of the material on the seabed. These remains were an area of fruitful investigation and a sketch plan of the submerged features was recorded

Alum Bay: Ongoing Research

HWTMA has received funding from English Heritage to conduct further investigation into the maritime heritage of Alum Bay. This research will draw upon the extensive archive of material that is the result of eighteen years of fieldwork within Alum Bay. The ultimate aim of this will be to produce a publication that will realise the full potential of Alum Bay to inform the public about this unique piece of England's maritime heritage and to allow long-term public accessibility.

This research and publication has been divided into five stages;

Stage One: Archive audit. Completed through funding from the Marc Fitch Fund.

Stage Two: Excavation. Completed through Archaeological Atlas of the Two Seas (A2S) funding.

Stage Three: Assessment of the existing material. This stage of the project has laid the groundwork for the final stages (Four and Five) through the analysis of the currently available data from Alum Bay to determine its potential to inform on a range of research questions. Part of this stage has involved the assessment of the extensive diver records from work within Alum Bay, as well as the development of site plans that catalogue the evolution of the maritime archaeology of Alum Bay over the past eighteen years. This stage of the project has now been completed.

Stage Four: Analysis and Research. This stage of the research will incorporate full historical analysis of the shipwreck remains of both Alum Bay 1 and 2, as well as investigation into environmental factors that impact upon the archaeological remains located in Alum Bay. For the first time, we are also studying the wider context of maritime activity within Alum Bay to allow the broadest possible interpretation of the maritime archaeological remains located there. This stage of the project is now underway and will continue through much of 2013. Some of this work is being completed through Arch-Manche funding.

Stage Five: Publication and Reporting. The results of the assessment, analysis and research have been published as Volume No. 2 in the MAT Monograph Series. Like Volume 1, the monograph has been published through Archaeopress in the British Archaeological Reports series, more information is available here.

Additionally, the project will also see the review and development of a Project Planning Note (PPN) for Marine Archaeological Investigation. This will complement the existing PPN that addresses general archaeological investigation, but with a specific tailoring towards marine archaeological investigations.

A management report on all of the archaeological sites situated within Alum Bay has also been produced at the request of English Heritage and is available for download here.

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