2 weeks offshore, 278 years into the past
Thousands lie dead beneath the Goodwin Sands. Thousands of lost lives from thousands of lost vessels return slowly to a formless nothing. Some twenty-five metres above the remains and remnants of peoples and worlds past, the sea rises and falls with a semblance of reliability; yet its movements stir and shift the unpredictable and deadly forms of this grim, underwater desert.
Dom Beverley, Fourth Element’s UK Account Manager and marine archeologist wannabe discovers the world of underwater excavation with the Rooswijk 2018 team.
Header Image: MSDS Marine
The sea shakes; juddering with mechanical regularity. I stand in the cage as we slowly move to depth. I’m Diver 2, watching Diver 1 kneel with his faceplate to the cage bottom. He peers beneath, waiting for a glimpse of the clump weight suspended just above the sea-floor signalling: “stop”.
As I watch the descent, visibility transitions from a watery chicken soup to a bleak, snowy night. The beam of my hat-light bounces off snotty passing fragments of who-knows.
Diver 1 calls out to topside and the cage stops. I help him out and he immediately vanishes. I follow his movements mentally via his conversation with the DSV and visualise him at the end of the twitching umbilical which passes through my hands.
“Okay Diver 2, make your way to the job.”
I follow Diver 1’s cables to the bottom and then move North until I find my tool: a five-metre airlift. I connect it up, ask for it to be turned it on, let it rise to stand straight up in the water, and look around. I can’t see anything. I look down. I can’t see the bottom. I crouch down, and under my wellies lies timber.
In 1737 construction was completed on a vessel for the Dutch East India Trading Company: the Rooswijk. Her task was to ferry food, money, building supplies and Dutch settlers to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta,) Indonesia. She completed this voyage. Once. She returned to Holland, re-loaded for a second trip and set off once more with the same goal.
It was in the depths of winter and on her second day at sea, as the Rooswijk passed into the British channel on January 9th 1740, that something happened which would cost the lives of the hundreds aboard.
What that something was we can only make educated guesses towards. By documenting the area of the wreck and how the pieces of the ship have settled on the sands we can make tentative statements. It hit a sandbank. It broke into at least two pieces. Ostensibly, the rear of the ship landed pointing straight up, and over the coming years, the decades and centuries would crush itself into a flat sum of its constituent parts; timbers protruding roughly like broken teeth, hidden wonders forced impossibly downward.
Now, in 2018, a non-invasive tour of the Rooswijk shows a number of timbers both on and disappearing below the seabed; a selection of cannons, cannon balls, musket flints, a giant anchor and some of its smaller kin, ancient, full barrels, some fishing net and evidence of the passage of a modern trawler through history. It looks nothing like a ship. The sands shift to cover and uncover sections of the wreck, and artefacts, at whim.
Beneath the sand lies who knows what else besides the manifest. Unearthed during my time on the project were parts of oil lamps, pewter cups, coins, crates of tool handles, a writing set, glasses, shoes, galley tiles, onion bottles, as-yet unidentified concretions, and bone. Some years prior to my involvement, numerous bars of solid silver were raised.
Photo: MSDS Marine
Photo: MSDS Marine
Silver is not on my mind as I excavate the surroundings of a large concretion in the supposed galley area. The airlift is a giant vacuum cleaner, made by injecting high-pressure air into a long plastic tube. As the air rushes to and out of the higher end of the tube, substrate and detritus are sucked into and up through the lower.
I lie flat on the bottom, face less than six inches from the airlift opening, and watch the sand disappear as layers of shells and other histories are revealed in a quick snapshot of the last few hundred years.
I work my way around the concretion, watching for uncovered finds and checking every object sucked onto the grille of the airlift. Some things are noteworthy; many not. I find pieces of glass fused together, or stuck in some unknown concretion. An onion bottle base sticks to the grille. An immaculate galley tile is uncovered at the bottom of a hole between timbers. For a heart-stopping five minutes, I find, in the virtually nil-viz, a peculiar metal object. Sharp, bone-like protuberances quicken my breathing. The visibility is terrible, but after some minutes of prodding and vacuuming, it is a degraded modern oil drum.
We’re breathing air, so bottom time is limited. Slack tide is also brief, ripping unworkably either side of the fleeting calm.
I manoeuvre the airlift around some long timbers and briefly think I’ve found something amazing – a massive leather hide. It turns out to be trawler rubber, lodged in the wreck. The rubber continues underneath a substantial object. Clearing the sand unearths a submerged ring of jagged copper. There’s just time to move enough sand to see it is a large cooking pot. Topside apologetically call me back to the cage and I just can’t budge it. I have to leave my find for the next diver.
After a cramped 17-minute safety stop it’s back to surface and hats off, then a closer look at the bits and pieces we brought up with us. Engraved knife handles, blades long gone but retaining ring still in place. A wooden pulley block, unused. Two pewter plates stuck together. Months of preservation work lies in the immediate future for these artefacts. We photograph and document them, then later work some laborious photogrammetric magic.
The pot was eventually raised and I got my photo and moment of glory, but very soon my time 8km out on the DSV Curtis Marshall was up.
I left wishing I could stay a couple more weeks and see some big finds come up, but the present snapped me back to reality through the brutal townscape of Ramsgate.
Off to the Isle of Man for a 24-hour relay dive.
Photo: Rooswijk Facebook
What larks. Perhaps marine archaeology is my true calling… Perhaps. But ultimately being able to take time to be involved in projects like the Rooswijk is one of the things that makes working at fourth element and being in the dive industry so fulfilling. The diving world is wide and varied. So much to see and do. Exciting invites much appreciated 🙂
A million thanks to Mark James of MSDS Marine, the project manager, and Martijn Manders of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE), the project leader of Rooswijk 2018; and of course to Jim and Paul for their continued support.