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Scientists solve mystery behind 17th-century warship wreck found off Sussex coast

Scientists have solved the mystery of the identity of a 17th-century Dutch warship wrecked off the coast of England while carrying slabs of fine Italian marble.

While the wreck sank in 1672 and was discovered in 2019 off the coast of Sussex, until now it was known as the “Unknown Wreck off Eastbourne”.

However, scientists have now identified the wreck as the Dutch warship Klein Hollandia.

Divers measuring timbers of the wreck. Pic: Martin Davies

Built in 1656 and owned by the Admiralty of Rotterdam, the ship was involved in all major battles in the second Anglo-Dutch war from 1665 to 1667.

Over the past year, specialists from Historic England, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and the Nautical Archaeology Society have been working on identifying the ship.

They used evidence gathered from the wreck, as well as archival research and tree ring analysis of the wood samples.

Experts say the wreck’s condition is remarkable and could offer a wealth of information about how 17th-century Dutch ships were built and the activities of the warship during its final voyage.

Heritage minister Lord Parkinson said the identification “offers a glimpse back into the 17th century, giving us a chance to learn more about the maritime history of this period and to uncover treasures which have been underwater for hundreds of years”.

A congor eel emerges from a bronze gun found at the wreck site. Pic: James Clark
A conger eel emerges from a bronze gun found at the wreck site. Pic: James Clark

Upon its discovery, the wreck was considered so important that it was granted the highest level of protection in the same year, under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.

A large part of the wooden hull, cannons, Italian marble tiles and pieces of Italian pottery were among the material found on the seabed.

The marble tiles came from the Apuan Alps quarries close to Carrara in Italy.

The tiles were bound for the Netherlands and would have been used to build high-status homes.

The wreck was discovered by Eastbourne dive operator David Ronnan and reported to Historic England. Mr Ronnan and Mark Beattie-Edwards are the licensees and have been investigating the wreck.

Read more:
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A Bellarmine jug found on the seabed. Pic: James Clark
A Bellarmine jug found on the seabed. Pic: James Clark

Mr Beattie-Edwards, chief executive of the Nautical Archaeology Society, said the ship’s cannons, cut marble tiles and pottery finds all point towards it being a Dutch ship coming back from Italy.

“Now, after four years of investigation and research, we can confidently identify the vessel.”

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