Archaeological excavation is a destructive process. As archaeologists dig and remove archaeological finds, they’re also removing the evidence. If you want to preserve this important wreck, why would you excavate it?
Time and Tide
Invincible is buried under Horse Tail Sands, which was called Horse and Dean Sands in 1758. This sand bank has gradually been moving south, changing shape and height. The Solent’s strong wave, tide and storm action washes the sands away, exposing Invincible’s wreck and leaving it unprotected. This makes her even more vulnerable to the elements and to damage from sea creatures that eat wooden ships.
Archaeology to the rescue
In 1980, Invincible was designated an ‘Historic Shipwreck’ under the Protection of Wrecks Act. This means that she is protected from unofficial human activity, but not from the physical environment. Nothing can be removed from her without permission.
She was partially excavated in the 1980s, but further surveys between 2010 and 2016 showed archaeologists that the wreck was being exposed at a rapid rate. Parts of her that hadn’t already been excavated were now under threat. Gribble and shipworm were munching away at her exposed timbers and an anchor from a large commercial ship had been dragged through the middle of her. Without rescue archaeology she would be lost forever.
Archaeological excavation was carried out over the summers of 2017, 2018 and 2019. Archaeologists lifted, recorded and conserved as much as possible in the ship’s significant areas.
Permission to excavate
Historic England only grants permission to excavate a protected wreck site if the proposed excavation project meets the right conditions. One condition of the 2017-2019 excavation was that a home was found for anything raised from the wreck. The National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard agreed to be that home. Parts of HMS Invincible will be returned to the very dockyard that she set off from over 261 years ago.
The end of the excavation
There was never a plan to fully raise Invincible in the way that the famous Tudor ship the Mary Rose has been. Raising such a large wooden ship from the seabed and properly conserving her would be extremely expensive – it took decades to conserve the Mary Rose. To protect the ship as much as possible on the seabed, archaeologists laid teram down over her timbers and secured it in place with sand bags. (Teram is a geotextile that helps to replicate the condition of being deep under the seabed.)