Saturday 29 August 2015

A Mediterranean anchor stock of the fifth to mid-second century BC found off the coast of Britain

The aim of the following post is to draw attention to a recently-recognised find of a fifth- to mid-second-century BC Mediterranean ship anchor from British coastal waters. Previous posts on this site have discussed the presence of a significant quantity of Greek autonomous coinage of primarily the fourth to second centuries BC in Britain, including Carthaginian/Punic, Ptolemaic, Numidian and Indo-Greek issues. Needless to say, finds of early Mediterranean anchors off the coast of Britain would seem to add further weight to the argument that there was a degree of long-distance maritime contact between Britain and the Mediterranean during the first millennium BC and that some, at least, of the above coins may well be genuinely ancient, pre-Roman losses that were brought to Britain by Mediterranean traders.

A trapezoidal lead core from a Mediterranean Type IIa wooden anchor of the fifth century BC, found in the sea at Plymouth (image: ProMare, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Reconstruction of how the lead anchor stock would have fitted into the original wooden anchor (image: ProMare, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The item under consideration here is a trapezoidal lead core from a wooden anchor stock that was almost certainly recovered by divers from the sea around Plymouth, where it was subsequently stored for a number of years with other recovered items from the water here—unfortunately without any record of its exact findspot—before it was identified as part of a classical-era wooden Type IIa anchor in 2010.(1) Such anchors represent the earliest departure from the use of stone in anchor construction, with the lead core being cast directly into a trapezoidal mould carved into the stock of a wooden anchor, and the Plymouth example has been suggested to date from the fifth century BC on the basis of a comparison with similar cores recovered from a Classical Greek shipwreck of c. 440–425 BC at Tektaş Burnu, Turkey, although Type IIa cores are also known from a ship of c. 400 BC found at Ma'agan Michael, Israel, and actually appear to have been widely used by Mediterranean ships through until the mid-second century BC.(2)

Such a find from the southern coast of Britain is, of course, of considerable interest. Given its considerable weight (26 kg), the fact that it seems to have been recovered from the sea by divers at Plymouth, its nondescript appearance, and its clear covering of marine growth, there seems little reason to doubt that this is a genuinely ancient loss, rather than some sort of misplaced modern tourist souvenir or the like. As such, the presence of this Mediterranean lead anchor stock core would appear to offer good potential evidence for a Mediterranean ship having visited Plymouth Sound at some point between the fifth and the mid-second century BC, although exactly who these visitors might have been is rather less clear, unfortunately, despite a recent description of the piece as being of 'Classical Greek' origin.(3) Whilst Type IIa anchors are certainly known from Classical Greek wrecks, they also seem to have been in use throughout the whole Mediterranean in that era, from Israel and Turkey in the east through to Morocco in the west. A somewhat lighter Type IIa anchor core (16.6 kg) found at Ras Achakar in Morocco, just on the Atlantic side of the Straits of Gibraltar, may, for example, have come from a Punic ship anchored there en route to the important Phoenician settlement of Gades (Cádiz), whilst another Type IIa anchor recovered from close to this area—at Cap Spartel—almost certainly dates from the fifth century BC and is likely to be Phoenician/Punico-Mauretanian in origin.(4)

If at least one perhaps Punic or Greek ship of the fifth to mid-second century BC may well therefore have visited Plymouth Sound on the basis of this find, it is worth emphasising that such a situation is not necessarily all that surprising. Even if we were to leave to one side the significant numismatic material mentioned above, the limited but intriguing textual sources, and the linguistic evidence for a degree of Carthaginian/Punic involvement and activity in pre-Roman Britain that was discussed at length in a previous post on this site, the Plymouth anchor stock core still would not stand totally alone and without context.(5) For example, the reality of long-distance maritime contact between Britain and the Mediterranean during the first millennium BC has received a significant boost in the past couple of years from the isotopic analysis of teeth found in a Late Bronze Age to Middle Iron Age cemetery on the Isle of Thanet, Kent. This analysis indicates that around 20% of those who were buried in that cemetery had actually been brought up in either North Africa or southernmost Iberia, much more probably the former, before they moved to Kent. Needless to say, this is a fascinating conclusion that offers considerable support for long-distance direct maritime movement between Britain and the Mediterranean in the first millennium BC, and it is interesting to observe that whilst at least some of these probably North African immigrants belonged to the Middle Iron Age phase of the cemetery (the same era as the anchor stock), the majority were actually interred in the Late Bronze Age.(6)

Aerial view of Poole Harbour at sunset; the two Iron Age piers/moles ran from Cleavel Point and Green Island into the South Deep on the left hand side of the photograph (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Potentially equally important are the results of investigations at Poole Harbour, Dorset, the site of the only excavated Iron Age harbour piers or moles in Britain and, indeed, the earliest such features yet known from the whole of north-west Europe. The two apparently monumental structures discovered here have been radiocarbon dated to around the third century BC, although a date of construction in the fourth-century BC is possible and Historic England's Pastscape database suggests a date of c. 300 BC. In either case, the two piers/moles are exceptionally early in date and clearly well-built and substantial—up to 160 metres long, 8 metres wide, and with paved stone surfaces of creamy-white Purbeck marble, the piers together extended out into the deep-water channel, narrowing its entrance and thus enabling the control of access to the harbour within. The very early construction of what would have been a visually impressive Iron Age harbour at Poole is, of course, important in itself as an indicator of probably significant levels of maritime trading taking place on the south coast of England by the third or fourth century BC. However, even more intriguing in the present context is the fact that a recent study of the site has suggested that the harbour design here might be potentially compared with a number of Mediterranean harbours, including that of Motya, Sicily, a Phoenician/Punic colony, and the fifth-century BC Greek harbour at Piraeus, and in this context it is at least interesting to note that a silver Siculo-Punic coin of the fourth century BC has been recovered from the shore of Poole Harbour.(7)

Another key piece of contextual evidence for the Plymouth find is the fact that it is not, in fact, the only early Mediterranean lead anchor stock to be found in British coastal waters, although it is the first Type IIa anchor to be identified here. A Type IIIb anchor stock weighing 71.5 kg was, for example, recovered from the sea at Porth Felen on the Llŷn Peninsula, North Wales, in the 1970s. This type of anchor stock appears to have been in use throughout the Mediterranean from perhaps the mid-third century BC through until the mid-first century AD, but ornamentation on the stock from Porth Felen indicates that a mid- to late second-century BC date may well be appropriate for this particular example. Needless to say, this anchor stock consequently represents valuable evidence for the presence of at least one other ship from the Mediterranean in British coastal waters in the centuries before the Roman conquest, and so offers further confirmation of the reality of long-distance maritime contact between Britain and the Mediterranean during the first millennium BC. Moreover, it itself does not stand alone, as yet another Type IIIb Mediterranean anchor stock has been very recently identified from British coastal waters, adding additional weight to the above case, this being found, interestingly enough, on the rocks off Fort Bovisand in Plymouth Sound!(8)

Plymouth Sound, as it appeared on Donn's map of 1765, with Rame Head at the western entrance to The Sound and Mount Batten & Bovisand Bay marked on its eastern side.

Lastly, it is worth pointing out that there is not only a reasonable national context for a Mediterranean ship of the fifth to mid-second century BC having been present in Plymouth Sound, but also a good local one too, even beyond the above-mentioned additional find of a Type IIIb Mediterranean anchor of the mid-third century BC to mid-first century AD here. Two points in particular are worth making. First, the large, natural deep water harbour of Plymouth Sound is part of what has been termed the 'Tamar Estuary Iron Age coastal node', and it moreover includes within its bounds the important Mount Batten Late Bronze Age and Iron Age port, which is one plausible candidate for the British tin-trading site Ictis mentioned by the Greek Pytheas of Massalia in the later fourth century BC. Second, the western side of the entrance to Plymouth Sound is guarded by the Iron Age promontory fort of Rame Head, a name that is usually considered 'completely obscure' and 'unexplained', but which has recently been argued by Richard Coates to be, in fact, potentially Proto-Semitic/Punic in origin (compare Ramat Gan, Israel, and Ramallah, Palestine). It goes without saying that both points are of considerable interest in terms of the local context of the fifth- to mid-second-century BC anchor stock under consideration here.(9)

To sum up, it seems clear that the Plymouth Type IIa anchor stock core is an important find, indicative of the presence of a Punic or Greek ship of the fifth to mid-second century BC in Plymouth Sound. Whilst this might appear surprising, such a situation would actually appear to have a reasonable context at both national and local levels, and the find itself adds yet more weight to the case for there having been a degree of long-distance maritime contact between the Mediterranean and Britain in the first millennium BC. Furthermore, this find and that of another, probably slightly later, lead anchor stock in Plymouth Sound means that there are now three early Mediterranean lead anchor stocks known from British coastal waters, something which is important in itself, not least because it means that the Porth Felen anchor stock discovered in the 1970s can no longer be dismissed as a one-off find.


1     SHIPS Project/ProMare, 'Wooden Anchor Stock Core (09A15)', Shipwrecks and History in Plymouth Sound Project, finds database, accessed 15 August 2015, online at
2     K. Trethewey, 'Lead anchor-stock cores from Tektaş Burnu, Turkey', International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 30 (2001), 109–14; D. D. Haldane, The Wooden Anchor (Texas A & M University MA Thesis, 1984), esp. pp. 6–7; A. Trakadas & E. Erbati, 'Lead anchor elements from Tangier, Morocco', Bulletin D'Archeologie Marocaine, 21 (2009), 250–67 at p. 254.
3     G. Wear, 'The anchor stock core from Fort Bovisand', 2014 conference poster, online at
4     Trakadas & Erbati, 'Lead anchor elements from Tangier, Morocco', pp. 253–4, 256; A. Trakadas, 'Morocco Maritime Survey: the 2002 season', The INA Quarterly, 30 (2003), 12–21, esp. pp. 18–20 on the radiocarbon-dated Type IIa anchor. See also A. Trakadas & S. Claesson, 'On the shores of the Maghreb-al-Asqa: the 1999 survey of Tangier Bay, Morocco', The INA Quarterly, 28 (2001), 3–15; A. Trakadas, 'Morocco Maritime Survey: 2003 season', The INA Quarterly, 31 (2004), 3–9, especially pp. 8–9; and E. Erbati & A. Trakadas, The Morocco Maritime Survey (Oxford, 2008), for example p. 63. A fifth-century date for the Cap Spartel anchor core is based on a combination of the general chronology of Type IIa anchors, that is fifth to mid-second century BC, and the fact that the core still had some of its original wooden stock attached which has been radiocarbon dated to 785–400 cal BC.
5     The numismatic, textual and linguistic evidence relating to possible Punic/Carthaginian activity in pre-Roman Britain is summarised and discussed in C. R. Green, 'Thanet, Tanit and the Phoenicians: place-names, archaeology and pre-Roman trading settlements in eastern Kent?', 21 April 2015, blog post, online at On the linguistic evidence, see further, for example, R. Coates, 'A Glimpse through a Dirty Window into an Unlit House: Names of Some North-West European Islands', in W. Ahrens et al (edd.), Names in Multi-Lingual, Multi-Cultural and Multi-Ethnic Contact: Proceedings of the 23rd International Congress of Onomastic Sciences, August 17-22, 2008 (Toronto, 2009), pp. 228–42, and G. Broderick, 'Some island names in the former "Kingdom of the Isles": a reappraisal', Journal of Scottish Name Studies, 7 (2013), 1–28. On the textual evidence, including the possible expedition of a Carthaginian explorer named Himilco to Britain sometime just after 500 BC or thereabouts and references to the Kassiterides, the 'Tin Islands', see for example, D. W. Roller, Through the Pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman Exploration of the Atlantic (London, 2006), pp. 12–14, 27–9; D. W. Roller, 'Himilco the Navigator', in E. K. Akyeampong & H. L. Gates Jnr. (edd.), Dictionary of African Biography, 6 vols. (Oxford, 2012), III.70; and B. Cunliffe, Britain Begins (Oxford, 2013), pp. 319–20.
6     J. I. McKinley et al, 'Dead-sea connections: a Bronze Age and Iron Age ritual site on the Isle of Thanet', in J. T. Koch & B. Cunliffe (eds.), Celtic from the West 2. Rethinking the Bronze Age and the Arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe (Oxford, 2013), pp. 157–83, esp. pp. 166–8, and now J. I. McKinley et al, Cliffs End Farm, Isle of Thanet, Kent. A Mortuary and Ritual Site of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon Period with Evidence for Long-Distance Maritime Mobility (Salisbury, 2014). Consultation of maps depicting water oxygen isotope composition across the Mediterranean basin, northern Africa and western Europe reinforces McKinley et al's suggestion that the 'southern' immigrants in the Thanet cemetery probably come from North Africa rather than southernmost Iberia; whilst a southern Iberian origin might possibly work for some of the samples analysed from this cemetery, others strongly indicate that the person involved spent at least part of their early life in northern Africa, not Iberia. See further J. A. Evans et al, 'A summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation in archaeological human tooth enamel excavated from Britain', Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry, 5 (2012), 754–64 at fig 12; G. J. Bowen & J. Revenaugh, 'Interpolating the isotopic composition of modern meteoric precipitation', Water Resources Research, 39 (2003), fig. 8; L.J. Araguas-Araguas & M.F. Diaz Teijeiro, 'Isotope composition of precipitation and water vapour in the Iberian Peninsula', in IAEA, Isotopic composition of precipitation in the Mediterranean Basin in relation to air circulation patterns and climate (Vienna, 2005), pp. 173–90 at fig. 3; and S. Terzer et al, 'Global isoscapes for δ18O and δ2H in precipitation: improved prediction using regionalized climatic regression models', Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 17 (2013), 1–16.
7     M. Markey, E. Wilkes & T. Darvill, 'Poole Harbour: an Iron Age port', Current Archaeology, 181 (2002), 7–11. See also Historic England's Pastscape Database, Monument No. 457510 ('Poole Iron Age Port'); E. Wilkes, Iron Age Maritime Nodes on the English Channel Coast: An Investigation into the Location, Nature and Context of Early Ports and Harbours, 2 vols. (Bournemouth University PhD Thesis, 2004), I.169–215, II.316–17, 321–7, with the radiocarbon results reported at p. 326; and E. Wilkes, 'Prehistoric sea journeys and port approaches: the south coast and Poole Harbour', in V. Cummings & R. Johnston (eds.), Prehistoric Journeys (Oxford, 2007), pp. 121–30, particularly p. 128. On the Siculo-Punic coin of the fourth century BC from Poole Harbour, see E. S. G. Robinson, 'Greek coins', British Museum Quarterly, 11.1 (1936), 29–31 at p. 30; RCHME, 'Other Roman Monuments', in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 2, South East (London, 1970), pp. 592–621, online at; J. G. Milne, Finds of Greek Coins in the British Isles (Oxford, 1948).
8     On the Porth Felen anchor stock and its date, see G. C. Boon, 'A Greco-Roman Anchor-Stock from North Wales', Antiquaries Journal, 57 (1977), 10–30; G. C. Boon, 'The Porth Felen anchor-stock', International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 6 (1977), 239–42. Note, images of the recently-discovered Punic anchorage at Cala Levante, Pantelleria, Sicily, indicate that Type IIIb anchors were being used by at least some Punic/Carthaginian ships in the Mediterranean in the mid-third century BC, thus extending the chronology of this type back half a century further than it is assigned in Haldane, The Wooden Anchor, pp. 7–8, 13: see L. Abelli et al, 'The Roman conquest of Pantelleria through recent underwater archaeological investigations', in C. Dagneau & K. Gauvin (eds.), ACUA Underwater Archaeology Proceedings 2014 (ACUA, 2014), 345–55 at p. 347. The Type IIIb lead anchor stock from Plymouth Sound is recorded as SHIPS Project/ProMare, 'Lead Anchor Stock (10A05)', Shipwrecks and History in Plymouth Sound Project, finds database, accessed 15 August 2015, online at
9     On the 'Tamar Estuary Iron Age coastal node' and Mount Batten, see Wilkes, Iron Age Maritime Nodes on the English Channel Coast, I.139–42, II.466–7; A. Firth et al, Tamar Estuaries Historic Environment: A Review of Marine and Coastal Archaeology (Plymouth, 1998); B. Cunliffe, Mount Batten, Plymouth: a Prehistoric and Roman Port (Oxford, 1988). Rame Head Iron Age promontory fort is Cornwall & Scilly Historic Environment Record PRN 6000; on the name 'Rame', see O. J. Padel, Dictionary of Cornish Place-Names (Penzance, 1988), p. 147; Coates, 'Names of Some North-West European Islands', 237; and Green, 'Thanet, Tanit and the Phoenicians'.

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