Marine divers’ recovery of 18th century warship

Thursday 24 October 2002

St Andrews marine archaeologists have played a key role in the excavation of an 18th century warship.

Since 2001, the University’s Archaeological Diving Unit have been working on the wreck of HMS Colossus on the Isles of Scilly in collaboration with the team of divers licensed to work on the wreck. The ADU assisted in the recovery of a larger-than-life- sized figure of a classical warrior. The statue, which was attached to a heavily decorated arched frame of a window in the Captain’s cabin, is currently awaiting conservation in the Scillies.

The team – comprising Martin Dean, Mark and Annabel Lawrence, Steve Liscoe and Graham Scott – also assisted Kevin Camidge, the site archaeologist, in surveying a previously undiscovered part of the ship, the stern.

ADU Director Martin Dean said, “It seems likely that a large part of the port side has survived and there are several cannons spectacularly still pointing through their gunports and embedded in the seabed. This work is important because the loss of protective sand would otherwise have meant that these ship remains would be damaged or destroyed by the sea.”

The expedition will feature in a one-hour Channel 4 Time Team documentary – “The Wreck of the Colossus” – at 9pm on Thursday 31 October 2002.

Thanks to the generosity of the Time Team and Kongsberg Simrad, the ADU were also able to carry out a multibeam sonar survey of the seabed between the site of the bow of the Colossus and the newly discovered stern. Multibeam equipment uses sound to map the contours of the seabed, and anything on it, at a very high resolution. It is hoped that the results of the survey, together with ADU side scan and magnetometer surveys, will help identify a “debris trail” from one side to the other. This trail will have been created as the ship drifted away from the rocks and broke up, spilling its contents as it went. Local divers have found guns and other items in the likely path of this trail. The Colossus was a 74-gun third rate ship-of-the-line built at Gravesend and launched in 1787. Her last naval engagement was at the Battle of Cape St Vincent (1797), during the course of which she was badly damaged. In consequence, she was used as a store ship, supplying provisions and equipment for the fleet under Nelson’s control in the Mediterranean (Nelson had been promoted to the post of rear admiral after the Battle of Cape St Vincent). The Battle of the Nile in August 1798 was a major strategic victory for the British and provided a welcome breathing space. The Colossus was stripped of her stores to repair the serving ships and ordered to return to England, carrying wounded from the battle, along with prize items and part of a collection of Greek antiquities amassed by Sir William Hamilton.

The Colossus approached the Channel in December 1798 and Captain Murray decided to take anchorage in St Mary’s Road in the Isles of Scilly to await favourable winds. On 10 December, the main anchor cable parted in the gale and the ship dragged her remaining anchors to come aground on Southward Well Rocks. Amazingly, all but one of her crew survived the incident, though the wounded were to spend an uncomfortable night lashed to the rigging as waves washed over the ship. The Colossus was subject to extensive salvage in the year following her wrecking, before she finally broke up.

The ADU’s involvement was the latter stage in an extended investigation of the site which had included the recovery of the Hamilton collection consisting of several crates of classical Greek red and black figure vases back in the early 1970s. This was the second collection sent back to England by Hamilton. The first, sold to the British Museum for the then princely sum of £8000, had a wide ranging effect on British art and fashion – inspiring Wedgwood’s ‘Etruscan Wares’. The collection is also important through its historical association with the Hamiltons and through them, with Nelson himself. Lady Emma Hamilton, William’s wife, was to become Nelson’s mistress during the period following the Battle of the Nile.

In 1972, the bow section of the ship was located by Mark Groves and Slim McDonald and the site was designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1975. Investigation took place under licence by a team lead by Roland Morris, a commercial salvor, funded by the British Museum. More than 30,000 sherds of Greek pottery had been recovered by the time the site was de-designated in 1984. Most of this pottery is now in the British Museum. Individual vases are currently being painstakingly reconstructed, using detailed drawings of the vases prepared by artists before the collection left Italy. The original designation came into force on 12 May 1975 and was revoked on 7 February 1984.

The original designation area covered the bow section of the ship, and the scatter of broken pottery. After loosing its designated status, the site and surrounding area has been subject to numerous searches by a number of different divers. In 1998, local diver Todd Stevens located scattered wreck material some distance from the original site including part of a gun carriage with ‘Colossus 32lb’ carved into it. This was declared to the Receiver of Wreck and the location given as ‘about ¼ mile east’ of the original site. After this other finds were made, probably slightly further to the east, by local salvage diver Mac Mace and others. On closer inspection, this proved to be almost the whole port side of the ship from forward of the mainmast to the stern, and from the upper deck gun ports to the turn of the bilge. Another local diver identified a carving in the area of the stern and, after licensed excavation, this proved to be a substantial piece of the port quarter decoration, close to its original position on the hull. Finally, the Colossus had become important in her own right as a shipwreck, and was re- designated. It was planned to raise the carved work in 2001 but it proved to be heavier and more substantial than anticipated because the larger-than-life-sized figure of a classical warrior was attached to a heavily decorated arched frame of a window in the Captain’s cabin.

The ADU’s involvement took place in June 2002 when the team observed and assisted in the recovery of the statue. The operation was funded and carried out successfully by Mr Mace and his archaeologist Kevin Camidge and the statue is now on the island of Tresco awaiting conservation. Although its future is uncertain, it is hoped that it will eventually be displayed to the public somewhere in the Isles of Scilly.


NOTE TO EDITORS – Jpeg photograph of classical warrior figure (and other pics) available from Claire Grainger – contact details below. For more information, please call Martin Dean on telephone 01334 462919.

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact: Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email cg24@st- View University press releases on- line at Ref: colossus/standrews/chg/25oct2002


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