On Saturday 7 October 2006 I joined 9 others at 8am at Aquanauts in Plymouth to start a Nautical Archaeology Society course. The course had been organised through the DIRX forum, but non-DIRish divers were welcome. We were combining 3 days (1 for Foreshore and 2 for the Part 1) classroom and practical into 2 days, so long days were ahead.

A chance conversation during a tea break whilst excavating East Hill Romano-British cemetery in Dartford resulted in a diving course for me. It has taken nearly 19 years to come full circle back to archaeology. The aims of the course were to train us in 3D surveying skill to be used to re-survey some of the site, as well as give us a grounding in other aspects of nautical archaeology and related law.

The site we were to visit was HMS Coronation. She was a 90 gun ship built in 1685, 161x45 feet, 1427 tons, with a crew of 600. She foundered on Penlee Point on the journey to Plymouth during a gale on 3 September 1691. Only the Captain, Charles Skelton, and 12 others survived. The wreck is spread over 2 sites. We would be diving the offshore site in about 18m. Only licensed divers may visit or survey such protected sites. Excavation or removal of artefacts was not part of the plan.

The chart below shows the position of the sites. The site concerned is the one in the middle (marked 94). The wreck of the James Eagan Layne is marked in the top left of the chart.



Saturday started with an introduction by Sarah Ward to the NAS and what it does followed by dating methods. Kevin Cimble (local tutor) spoke about what to do with finds and handling waterlogged materials. 2D survey methods followed. After a quick lunch at Captain Jasper's, the practical session followed. We walked to a nearby car park where an archaeological site needed surveying.

We had split into teams of 2 for the survey work - I was teamed up with Digger who I had dived with a couple of times before. In my now dim and distant past I had trained in surveying so this bit was a doddle. Although it did give an insight of how much care was needed to avoid doubt. A few carefully taken readings are far more valuable than many poor ones. Avoiding repeated dives to check measurements is much to be desired. We used 3 different methods of recording; each had their pros and cons and thus appropriate uses.

On to the dive. The trip was a little rough once around the Penlee Point, but we coped. The aim of the dive was to give us an idea of the layout of the site. Sarah and Kevin would be looking for the control points to re-tag them. There are several guns and a couple of anchors in an area of sea bed of rocky outcrops with sandy gullies. We were given slates with a map of the site, plus space to write down any notes. Doug, the skipper, planned to drop the shot line just outside of the anchor (A-A1) on the left of the diagram below. Digger and I were the 3rd team off the boat, but the second team down as one team had not yet started their descent.

Control point C11 was easily spotted; it was very near the shot line. The shot itself was draped over gun CA08. I tied off my reel on the shot line and off we went. The guns are huge - about 4m long. We have a good look at them then went over to the anchor. This too is big - the stock must be 30cm square. I deliberately don''t tie in the line as we move around, this way the route back is potentially reduced. We go over a pile of scaffold, part of a previous survey, then a few more guns (CA03 - CA06). We then loop around a rock pinnacle and come across the second anchor. I set the challenge of finding another control point C09. No luck with this so try to find gun CA13. We fail, so swim around in a loop, coming across what would appear to be our line.



Approximate route of our dive shown in blue.

We start retracing our route and this time find what looks like a gun in the sand - CA13. A little bit further and a second gun, then a third. This isn't right. There are only two shown on the map we have. We return to the first object for a second look. We are both pretty convinced, although we have nothing to check it is iron. Only later did I realise my compass might have reacted against it.

We follow our line back, finding Kevin and Sarah at C04. Our line has snagged the huge rail bolts used as the control points, making it easily found. Then we return to the shot line.

During the ascent it becomes obvious that the current has picked up somewhat, we fly like flags. The bubbles from Sarah and Kevin below rise diagonally too. The wait on the surface is fairly long as the boat is doing a pick up some way off. We are finally picked up, the vertical side lift is very quick. Our total dive time is just under the hour, with a bottom time of about 45 minutes at 18m.

Once back to shore we cleaned up and then eventually ate at a local seafood restaurant on the quayside.


8am Sunday morning found us back at the shop. The weather had deteriorated and it was touch and go whether we would be diving.

The first thing we did was draw up the car park survey from the day before. Again this was simple for me having been a draughtsman. We then moved on to project preparation. This being all the planning, risk assessment and project reporting. Then more lectures on legal stuff - the various acts covering wreck and protected sites. Parts come under the Department of Transport, some the Department of Culture Media and Sport.

Kevin then introduced us to the joys of surveying in three dimensions. In some ways easier as you did not have to be sure everything was in a single plane. On the other hand more dimensions would be required to check the accuracy of each position.

No diving was going to happen, so after lunch were picked up tapes and writing slates and wandered towards the Hoe. Here we find a small rowing boat upon some rocks with a few trees around. A little bit of local artwork. What followed was 5 groups of 2 attempting to take 4 measurements between ''known'' fixed points and parts of the boat. A good opportunity for some comedy tangles. All in the pouring rain.

Back indoors we were shown how to use some software to enter all the dimensions we had taken. The software was capable of checking the various dimensions against each other and indicate any that would create errors outside a given tolerance. It seemed our measuring was of a high quality. Probably harder to repeat on a larger underwater site. Each of us received a basic version of the software as part of our course notes. We then had a short multiple choice exam, which we all passed.

It is intended to develop some kind of project around HMS Coronation. A return visit is required, as some of the previous survey work does not add up. This would have been done on our subsequent dives had the weather allowed. What kind of project develops remains to be seen; it would have to be more than just surveying. The relationship between the two sites is not well understood as they are some 800m apart. All of us were keen to be involved in any forthcoming project. We shall see.

The course was well run with a clear intention. There is the potential to take further courses, mainly dealing with the more specialist aspects of nautical archaeology as well as archaeology in general. I would recommend it to anyone interested in archaeology as well as any diver who is looking for a different challenge.