Hidden Heritage: The Duart Castle Shipwreck

‘Like shipwrecks of all periods, the Swan is a time-capsule of her era.’

Colin JM Martin investigates the complex logistics of under water archaeology in this case study of the wreck of the Swan, a Cromwellian warship that sank off Duart Point on Mull in 1653. Martin argues that such wrecks serve as time capsules and give essential insight into not just life on the high seas but, more widely, enables further understanding of how past generations of Scots lived.

Hidden Heritage: The Duart Castle Shipwreck
By Colin JM Martin

Scotland’s historic monuments and archaeological sites are prime attractions for visitors and locals alike. Careful study, preservation and presentation over the years has made them important cultural and economic assets to be cherished and enjoyed now and in the future. Recently a silent and barely noticed revolution has added a previously unsuspected dimension to this precious resource. It is taking place under water, around our coasts and in our rivers and lochs.

The recent publication of an underwater investigation off Mull illustrates the potential of discoveries under the sea. In 1653 a storm hit a Cromwellian task-force while it was attacking Duart Castle, and three ships were wrecked. One was the Swan, a small warship which once belonged to the Marquess of Argyll. Her remains were discovered off Duart Point in 1979 but left undisturbed. Twenty years later erosion began to affect the site and a project to excavate and consolidate the threatened areas was initiated by Historic Scotland. The work was conducted by archaeologists from St Andrews University over the following 13 summers.

Archaeology under water is in most respects the same as archaeology on land, though marginally wetter! Archaeological features are carefully mapped in relation to the natural environment in which they lie. The ability to hover over what is being recorded is an advantage terrestrial archaeologists might envy. In some ways underwater excavation is easier than on land, since careful hand fanning can be used to displace sediments in a controlled way; the merest waggling of a finger being all that is needed to reveal a delicate item without displacing or damaging it.

Once mapped and recorded, wrecks are analysed and interpreted in much the same way as an aircraft crash. How the disaster unfolded is revealed by the evidence, and a reconstructive process follows. In the case of a shipwreck natural factors must also be taken into consideration – the nature and topography of the sea bed, currents and storm effects, sediment movements, and the various influences of plant and animal life. Once these factors are understood archaeologists can work back through the processes, so to speak, and reach conclusions about the vessel before it became a wreck.

The Swan evidently struck Duart Point broadside on, before sliding down a rock face to settle on the bottom, heeled to one side. The keel and much of the hull’s lower structure, pinned down by stone ballast, survived in remarkably good condition. Although most of the exposed upper structure disintegrated and floated away the upper castleworks filled with silt and collapsed, forming a kind of archaeological lasagne which encapsulated parts of the captain’s panel-lined cabin and carvings from the decorated stern. Trapped among it were high-quality items including a pocket-watch, part of a top-of-the-range snaphaunce pistol, and the hilt of a sword wound with gold and silver wire. These almost certainly belonged to the ship’s captain, Edward Tarleton, whose portrait we’ve managed to track down. He survived the wreck, though at least one of his seamen did not. His bones were found scattered among the stern deposit, and forensic examination revealed him to have been a Yorkshireman of about 23 who suffered from rickets in childhood. Apart from that he had been fit and well fed. That he was a seaman was revealed by an abnormality in his hip joints which indicated that he had regularly dropped the last few feet onto the deck after working aloft.

From the ship’s remains we deduced her dimensions, general design, and how life was regulated aboard. Worn pulley blocks and other rigging items suggested the ship was poorly maintained. We learned much about her pumping system, how she was navigated, medicine on board, and how rations were apportioned. From animal bones and other evidence we could show that she provisioned herself locally – probably by forced requisition. We only raised one of her eight guns, together with its carriage, but this provided new evidence about 17th-century gunfounding and how the guns were worked. And we learned much about life on board from a wide range of items – vessels of pewter, pottery, and wood; knives and other tools; lanterns; shoes; and clay pipes. Like shipwrecks of all periods, the Swan is a time-capsule of her era. Each is unique, and all merit proper protection, preservation, and study.

A Cromwellian Warship Wrecked off Duart Castle, Mull, Scotland, in 1653 by Colin JM Martin is out now published by Society of Antiquaries of Scotland priced £25. The report can be ordered online here – if you enter Duart1653 at the checkout you can receive a £5 reduction (offer valid until 31/10/2017).

The wreck is a Historic Marine Protected Area under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. Diving visitors are welcome, but it is illegal to damage or remove material, or disturb the surrounding plant and animal life within the designated area. A trail map and information for visitors can be downloaded from

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