The Roman shipwreck project

Project leader: J.D. Hill

Department: Directorate

Project start: 2000
End date: 2006

External partners:

Centre for Maritime Archaeology, University of Southampton

Project funded by:

The British Museum

The Townley Group

University of Southampton

Roman Research Trust

English Heritage


The Roman Shipwreck project was set up in 2000 to study a possible shipwreck of a Roman ship at Pudding Pan or Pan Sands in the Thames Estuary north of Herne Bay.  Roman samian pottery and other material has been collected by fishermen from the seabed at Pan Sands for over 250 year. Since the eighteenth Century the British Museum collected material from the site. Despite many attempts to locate the source of this Roman pottery since the eighteenth  Century, no one has so far been successful and it is not clear if this pottery comes from a sunken Roman ship or a jettisoned cargo.

This project involved the detailed study of all the material found or supposedly found at the site, along with surveys of the Pan Sands to locate the possible wreck.  Sonar surveys, controlled trawling and diver surveys have been used. Although the exact source of the pottery has so far not been found, the survey has been significantly narrowed down to area where most of the Samian pottery is coming from.  The project has also demonstrated that there are other sources of Roman pottery (other wrecks or cargos) in the wider area around Pan Sands.

The study of the pottery found at Pan Sands has revealed a great deal about the composition of what is probably a very large cargo of plain Samian pottery lost on route to Roman London in the second half of the second Century AD. Even though the actual location of the cargo still remains to be found, the very large number of pots in Museums across the UK from the site, and the wear patterns on them, provides evidence for size, composition, packing of the cargo, how it is lying in the sea bed and how it becomes exposed.  A there are very few known cargoes of Samian or other terra sigilatta anyway in the Roman World, Pan Sands provides important evidence for the trade of Roman pottery.

The research for this project was largely carried out by Michael Walsh for his doctoral research supported by the University of Southampton and has been written up in his PhD thesis.

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