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NHPP Activity 3A1 Unknown Marine Assets and Landscapes

Research carried out 2011-2015, concerned with identifying heritage in England's marine environment, including wrecks and former landscapes now submerged below the sea. This work formed part of the National Heritage Protection Plan.

A view of HMS Warspite, built in 1807.  Few vessels, or evidence of vessels, remain from this era. Date Taken: 1870 - 1900
A view of HMS Warspite, built in 1807. Few vessels, or evidence of vessels, remain from this era. Date Taken: 1870-1900 © English Heritage, image reference CC97/01581

Scope of the activity

Since the end of the last Ice Age, our national story has been inextricably linked to our surrounding seas. Over several thousand years migration, military adventure, commerce, and in recent centuries the evolution of England (and as part of Britain) into a major mercantile and naval power, were all made possible through the use of ships and boats.

Despite the scale of this past human nautical activity, we still needed to know more about the physical evidence of it that may remain on the seabed. Survey, mapping and assessment work provided an essential basis for identifying sites that should be protected by legal means.

An important area, and a recent development, is in assessing the character and scale of England's submerged ancient landscapes. These large areas of former land have considerable but poorly understood potential for archaeological remains and even entire sites.

This Activity included seabed mapping, Historic Seascape Characterisation, and establishing cost-effective ways of establishing potential for discoveries within areas of sea marked for development and resource exploitation.

Expected Protection Results

The projects under this Activity aimed to generate greater understanding of:

  • What the marine historic environment consists of. 
  • What heritage exists.
  • The potential of sites and areas.
  • How we can realise benefits and protect this heritage.

Projects in this activity

National coverage by Historic Seascape Characterisation (HSC)

By providing 'baseline' information on historic character, compiled to common principles across land, coast and sea, HSC's area-based understanding of historic cultural imprints throughout the marine profile will enable better contextualised responses to protecting coastal and marine heritage and a more effective contributions to the development of marine plans. Results of this work are already helping the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) in marine planning tasks: for example, it is helping them to decide on the historic environment elements of the Seascape Character Assessment for Marine Plan South. They are also using it to increase the profile of the marine historic environment amongst other stakeholders.

Find out more about Historic Seascape Characterisation.

During the plan period we completed the following HSC projects:

Developing understanding of submerged palaeoenvironments

In recent years, a number of projects have made a major contribution to our understanding of ancient submerged landscapes around the UK. This has improved our ability to deliver sustainable development for the marine historic environment.

Despite the increase in data specifically generated by previous projects, and the increase in marine developer-led work over the same period, there is a general realisation that there is a need to consolidate this knowledge in order to develop a coherent approach for any further future investigations.

The 'Audit Of Current State Of Knowledge Of Submerged Palaeolandscapes And Sites' project brought together the results of all the relevant available surveys which have been conducted in recent years.

Its aims were to:

  • Improve access to data and interpretation.
  • Provide an overview of our understanding of submerged landscapes and sites that have been identified.
  • Highlight areas for possible future investigation, and to develop methodologies for assessment and interpretation.

See the initial submerged palaeolandscapes audit report and also the report from a meeting of international experts in the field that we supported.

Strategic desk-based assessment of early ships & boats

One way of expanding the designation base is to take a thematic approach.  Early ships and boats (i.e. those dating from the earliest times to about 1840) are recommended as such a theme because of their special technological, historical and human interest.

This study contributes to the overall national programme of planned designation, which encompasses a range of candidates for thematic assessment to ensure that the full weight of statutory protection is given where threat is most urgent, or where future threats may be most appropriately prevented.

You can find out more about early ships and boats from our publication Introduction to Heritage Assets Ships and Boats: Prehistory to 1840.

Our approach to the potential designation of ships once they are identified is explained in the relevant selection guide. This considers all vessels used on inland waters, coastal waters and the open sea. It also includes vessels that are now buried under ground and those that are no longer afloat.

The guide complements the listing and scheduling selection guides for the marine environment. It includes a historical introduction, followed by a consideration of designation issues, and sources of further information.  Find out more about the selection for designation of early boats and ships from Ships and Boats: Prehistory to Present Designation Selection Guide.

Unknown marine assets and landscapes: Liverpool Bay

This project examines the cost effective use of existing and new geophysical survey data to map and characterise unknown marine assets and landscapes in the approaches to Liverpool. The study area has very high archaeological potential in terms of both historic shipwrecks and submerged prehistory but has received little archaeological attention in the past.

The project includes an initial data audit to determine the extent and availability of existing marine geophysical and geotechnical survey data. This was followed by an assessment of sample data to determine its archaeological usefulness. Read the results of this assessment of Liverpool Bay.

The project uses proven methodologies developed for archaeological area geophysical surveys and for assessing the archaeological suitability of geophysical survey data, collected in the context of offshore wind-farm schemes. It examines best practice in terms of cost effectiveness and the use of geophysical data by multiple users, and for multiple purposes. In addition the project provides a model for use in other areas that have a very high potential in terms of unknown marine assets and landscapes.

Locating lost submarines

English Heritage’s marine archaeologists launched a four year project spanning the 1914-1918 First World War centenary to locate dozens of British and German submarines which sank within territorial waters 12 miles off the English coast during the First World War.

Preliminary research into historical records has already identified 44 submarines: three British and 41 German. Once the team establishes the locations of the submarines more closely they will assess their condition to see what can be done to make them more stable. Depending on their historical significance they may also be put foward for legal protection as Protected Wreck Sites, or if human remains are found to be present, protected to ensure they remain undisturbed as military maritime graves.

This investigation into a common European heritage of naval conflict was reported internationally, including in Germany's popular Der Spiegel magazine.

See more of what we now know about the submarines wrecks and how you can add to this knowledge in our First World War centenary feature.

Aerial view of the wreck of a submarine in the Medway
The wreck of a submarine in the Medway, it may be the First World War German vessel UB-122 © English Heritage, image reference 27196_027

Links to other activities

This Activity had strong links to:

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