art history · english history · history

Preserved in Time: The London Shipwreck

As a kid I dreamed (and lets be real still wishes) of being an archaeologist. You get to travel the world and discover the lost secrets of history. You get to be the first to touch something that no living person has touched in hundreds of years. I imagine it would feel like you would have some connection to those who came before you and, honestly, I want to feel like I am experiencing what others before me did. It would almost be like you were time traveling. Unfortunately, I grew up and the realities of life set in such as student debt, a good salary, and finding stability. A girl can still dream though!

I bring this up because I have been following an amazing archaeological find of our current day. Found in the Thames River in London, a great ship from the 17th century was found impeccably preserved. Talk about traveling back in time! Much of The London, which was the name the ship was known as, was preserved under a deep layer of mud and silt. I was reading that shipwrecks are a rare gem for archaeologists as they are unexpected events. They are often found in well preserved areas and show the real life of the time. None of the artifacts or people could be staged or changed; they remain as they were the day the ship fell to the bottom of the sea.

A reconstruction of The London

The London, built in 1656, was a very interesting ship. It was made for the English Navy and is one of only three second-rate ships created at this time. After the death of Oliver Cromwell, it was one of the ships included in the fleet sent to retrieve the exiled Charles II in order to restore the monarchy. Supposedly, it physically carried Charles’ brother, James. This ship contained 76 guns. On March 7th 1655 The London accidentally blew up while stationed near Southend-on-Sea in Essex. It would have been blown in half and would have very quickly sunk to the bottom of the river. It was carrying about 300 barrels of gunpowder (possibly prepared for a ceremonial gun salute) and something must have happened with these barrels to cause the ship to explode. It was a tragedy and killed about 300 people. I was surprised when I read that a lot of the victims were women which leads to many questions. Why were so many women on board? Is there a chance that for certain naval voyages the men took their wives or loved ones?

Recovered Gun Carriage, Cranes were needed to pull these out of the water!

During the recent years a big excavation project has been in progress to see what kind of artifacts could be salvaged. It is quite amazing what the archaeologists have been able to find with the conditions they work in. They must dive in order to find the artifacts and, being the Thames, the water is very murky causing very low viability (the divers can only see about 20cm in front of them!). They find most of these objects by touch! The biggest finds are the gun carriages and the guns themselves. It is said that the carriages were uniquely made to fit their particular gun and the historians are looking to match these.


Shockingly preserved candles from the 17th century were found, which is amazing considering the material they were made of. Also, a number of period shoes made of leather were found. These were most likely the extra pairs the sailors brought along; not the ones they wore when they perished. Daily items like spoons, utensils, vases, pipes, etc. were found. I think the personal items are the most interesting just because there is some story of a forgotten individual behind them; someone who could have been very similar to me and you.

Preserved 17th Century Shoe

Rare sites like the shipwreck of The London are very important finds for the study of history. We learn so much more than you would think from objects. Due to the successful results of the excavation of this shipwreck,  historians have learned and added more about navy life and life in the 17th century to the historical record. I will be interested to find out what more they will uncover!

What do you think is the most interesting item found?

What archaeological project would you like to be a part of?

For more images of the artifacts uncovered visit:


History Extra Podcast- Episode: Demons and Shipwrecks released 11/16/17

6 Fascinating Finds from the London Wreck, 1665

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