Underwater Archaeology: Boyd Harris lecture, 19th October 2018

Underwater Archaeology JPEG

Boyd Harris, LAS evening lecture, Friday 19 October 2018

This was the first lecture on underwater archaeology that the society has heard, and it opened up a whole new and unfamiliar subject.

Boyd Harris explained that in his youth he was both a keen photographer and a diver, wanting to record wrecks. In the early 1970s he joined Chorley Sub-aqua Club.  This was long before the ‘digital age’ and before funding for underwater archaeology existed – so club members had to make their own equipment, including wet suits, lamps, and waterproof casing for cameras.

One of the club’s early expeditions was to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. At the end of the Great War, the defeated German fleet was escorted to Scapa Flow.  Unsure of the future, on 21st June 1919, the German admiral ordered his men to scuttle the ships.  Of the 74 ships, 52 were sunk (with no loss of life).  Most of them were subsequently salvaged, but seven remain for divers to explore.  Boyd’s underwater photos were fascinating, showing the huge scale of the battleships, and how they remain intact, with all their guns in place.  The club recovered the ship’s bell from SMS Brummer, which is now in the Merseyside Maritime Museum.

We then moved to Anglesey and the wreck in 1675 of the first royal yacht, the Mary. This vessel was Dutch and had been given by the city of Amsterdam to Charles II at the Restoration. Although mainly used for pleasure and for transporting dignitaries, it was well armed with cannon.  Whilst on a voyage from Dublin to Chester, the Mary hit the Skerries, a group of rocks off the coast of Anglesey. Of 75 people on board, 39 were saved, the rest lost.

For more on the HMY Mary see Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMY_Mary

Boyd explained how his club discovered the wreck in 1971, and found that the ships ballast had comprised iron cannon balls. When the yacht sank, it overturned, and the cannon balls crashed through the decks, burying the archaeology beneath them. It was very difficult to remove this layer of rusted ballast, but hammer and chisel, and explosives, eventually did the job, and the search for the artefacts below could begin. Pewter table ware, silver tankards and many personal possessions were recovered, including gold lockets with human hair, as well as belt buckles and even pieces of fabric. A number of cannon were also salvaged (see main photo), and the whole wreck surveyed and recorded.

Everything (more than 1500 objects) was taken to the Merseyside Maritime Museum, where they were eventually displayed. Boyd’s sole ‘souvenirs’ were a couple of the ballast cannon balls (the rest were not recovered, but left on the sea bed). He had brought them along, so we were able to feel the weight of the 28 pounder, and appreciate the task of removing the ballast by hand, underwater.

All in all, a fascinating insight into underwater archaeology before the passing of the Protection of Wrecks Act of 1973 – an unfamiliar subject, and enjoyed by all.


Text by Mavis Shannon

Photo by Boyd Harris

Posted by Wendy Ferneyhough

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