Medieval cargo of Purbeck stone is raised from Studland Bay

Purbeck stone grave slabs dating back 750 years are to go on display in spring 2025 after being raised from a medieval shipwreck in Studland Bay, within sight of Old Harry.

A team from Bournemouth University undertook a series of dives, the most recent on Tuesday 4th June 2024, to recover two carved gravestones and some Purbeck stone mortars for grinding flour, along with cups, pots, cooking utensils and a cauldron from one of the oldest shipwrecks in England.


Maritime Archaeologist Tom Cousins with two carved Purbeck stone grave slabs, raised from Studland Bay

Guarded by sea for 750 years

Local diver Trevor Small alerted the university’s archaeology department after getting sonar soundings from his boat Rocket, and subsequent dives located some timbers from a medieval ship – along with the cargo which may have been responsible for sinking it.

The 24 metre long vessel, which would have had up to 20 crew on board, had a payload of plain and pre-carved gravestones, along with heavy mortar stones, all made from Purbeck stone which had been quarried from land near Corfe Castle.

It is believed the stone goods would have been transported overland to Poole Harbour to be loaded aboard a carrack style boat, built between 1242 and 1265 in the reign of King Henry III according to dating techniques used on the ship’s timbers.

But the vessel ran into trouble almost as soon as it left the shelter of Poole Harbour and sank in Studland Bay with the loss of all its cargo, which then remained guarded by the sea for some 750 years.


A reconstruction of the carrack style boat used for transporting goods in the 13th Century


Divers uncovered the gravestones seven metres below the waves in Studland Bay

“I’ve never seen anything like it”

Derek Pitman, head of archaeology at Bournemouth University, is also a regular on TV’s Time Team and joined co-presenter Lawrence Shaw on a dive by the university.

Derek Pitman said:

“This is a substantial ship and had a relatively large cargo of stone mortars and burial slabs, but there are also cooking pots and pottery items on board – this wasn’t a high prestige ship, just your normal, run of the mill trading vessel.

“The wreck was really well preserved, I’ve never seen anything like it. The ship is likely to be about 24 metres long with a six metre beam, and may even have housed a castle at the stern. It could have supported a crew of 20 sailors alongside its impressive cargo.

“Not enough is known about the wreck yet to say with any certainty why the ship sank. Perhaps it was caught in a storm, or hit some choppy waters as it was leaving the harbour. It’s also possible that the heavy cargo played some role in its demise.”


One of many mortars discovered on the wreck is brought back to the surface


A collection of galley items found with the wreck include cups, bowls and cauldrons

“A wooden ship laden down with stone”

Derek Pitman added:

“But while we were out filming and bouncing up and down a bit, I started to ponder what life would have been like for the sailors on that boat.

“Even on this modern vessel you feel quite vulnerable when you are rocking around at sea – so imagine what it must have been like on a wooden ship laden down with so much stone, it must have been a frightening experience.

“It’s really important, because while we talk about a wreck, there were people on board and although I like to think they would have made it back to shore – as it’s not too big a swim to Studland – in rough conditions it would have been horrifying.

“While we are looking at artefacts and trying to learn more about people in the past, of course that could be a graveyard down there.”


The huge stone slabs were raised by crane on Tuesday 4th June 2024


Bournemouth University divers carefully uncover artefacts from the seabed

Monstrous barge brought up huge crates

Divers and archaeologists led by Bournemouth University brought the slabs to the surface on Tuesday, 4th June 2024 in a two hour operation from a depth of around seven metres where the stones lay.

The stone mortars which the Mortar Wreck was named after had been brought up to the surface in July 2022, but the university needed a monstrous barge anchored to the sea bed, to bring up huge crates with massive Purbeck stone slabs.

One immaculately preserved slab measured one and a half metres and weighs an estimated 70 kilograms. Another, much larger slab is in two pieces, with a combined length of two metres and a weight of around 200 kilograms.

Both have carvings of Christian crosses which were popular in the 13th century and the research team believe they were intended to be coffin lids or crypt monuments for high status individuals in the clergy.


A map of England shows all the medieval cathedrals, churches and abbeys which used Purbeck stone

“The height of the Purbeck stone industry”

Tom Cousins, a Maritime Archaeologist at Bournemouth University who led the recovery, said:

“The wreck went down at 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.

“Examples have been found in Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral, where Purbeck stone was in high demand.

“Although Purbeck marble was quarried near Corfe Castle there has always been a debate about how much work was done here and how much was done in London.

“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.”


Renovation work is currently in progress at Poole Museum, which is set to reopen in spring 2025


Heather Anderson, of Maritime Archaeology Ltd, with a copper cauldron found at the wreck site

Going on display at new £7 million museum

The slabs will now be cleaned up and conserved before going on public display along with the other recovered artefacts in the new Shipwreck Gallery when Poole Museum reopens next year following a £7.7 million redevelopment.

A spokesperson for Poole Museum said:

“The recovered items from the Mortar Wreck are incredibly exciting, an integral part of our rich maritime heritage.

“Residents and visitors will be able to get up close to the unfolding story of the excavation and what that can tell us about times past through both the everyday items on board and a cargo of gravestones.”


King Henry III, with a representation of Westminster Abbey behind him

Henry III, the builder king

Henry III, son of King John – the villain of the Robin Hood legends – was only nine years old when he came to the throne in 1216, when the monarchy was at war with England’s barons, and reigned for 56 years.

He was known as the builder king and his contribution to Britain’s architecture is still in evidence in many cathedrals and castles, including the Tower of London, Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey.

It was during this time that Purbeck stone – often referred to as Purbeck marble – became the most desirable resource in medieval England.

A disused Purbeck stone quarry, dug into the hills near Anvil Point

41 shillings paid for marble from Corfe

The King’s Table – the seat of power in Westminster Hall for many centuries – was commissioned by Henry III and made out of Purbeck marble.

We know through written records that in the reign of his son, King Edward I, 41 shillings was paid for the ‘freight of a ship bringing marble from Corfe’ – the equivalent in today’s money of £2,000.

Most of it was moved initially by sea, as that was by far the quickest way of transporting heavy goods, and Purbeck stone was in huge demand in cathedrals, churches and castles across England and northern Europe.

Further information

Watch video of Time Team’s dive in Studland Bay

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