Deep dives reveal fascinating shipwreck history

Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS) divers measuring timbers of the Klein Hollandia. Image: Martin Davies

A remarkable shipwreck discovered off England’s south coast has been identified as a 17th-century Dutch warship, following four years of underwater evidence-gathering, research and analysis.

Discovered 32 metres underwater off Eastbourne, East Sussex, by local dive operator David Ronnan, the ship, previously known as ‘Unknown Wreck off Eastbourne’ has been revealed as being the Klein Hollandia.

Owned by the Admiralty of Rotterdam, the ship was built in 1656 and sank in 1672, having been involved in all major battles in the second Anglo-Dutch war, 1665-1667. The wreck was considered so important, it was granted the highest level of protection, under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, immediately on discovery.

Since 2019, licensed divers have undertaken 282 dives on the site and have built up a comprehensive picture of what is on the seabed.

“From our very first dive on the wreck, back in April 2019, we have been fascinated by the range of material on the seabed."

Mark Beattie-Edwards, Nautical Archaeology Society
Bellarmine jug found on the seabed. Image: James Clark

A team from Historic England, Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) and the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS) has been studying gathered evidence over the past year, while also carrying out archival research and analysis of the wood samples.

Ronnan and Mark Beattie-Edwards from the NAS have been among the specialists investigating the wreck since its discovery. Material found on the seabed includes much of the wooden hull, cannons, Italian marble tiles and Italian pottery.

Beattie-Edwards, who discussed the findings on the BBC2 television series Digging for Britain, said, “From our very first dive on the wreck, back in April 2019, we have been fascinated by the range of material on the seabed.

“The impressive amount of wooden hull structure, the ship's cannons, the beautifully cut marble tiles, as well as the pottery finds, all point towards this being a Dutch ship from the late 17th century coming back from Italy. Now, after four years of investigation and research, we can confidently identify the vessel.”

Thanks to its superb condition, the wreck could offer a wealth of information about how 17th century Dutch ships were built and the activities of the warship during its final voyage.

A congor eel emerges from a bronze gun at the wreck site. Image: James Clark

UK heritage minister Stephen Parkinson said, “The identification of the Klein Hollandia offers a glimpse back into the 17th century, giving us a chance to learn more about the maritime history of this period and to uncover treasures which have been underwater for hundreds of years.

“I am very pleased that thanks to this partnership between the UK and the Netherlands, we have been able to solve some of the mysteries linked to this wreck – and to protect it for future generations to continue to research.”

Gunay Uslu, Dutch state secretary for culture and media said, “Without responsible management, wrecks like these will disappear. Therefore international collaboration with partners like the United Kingdom is important and highly appreciated; it helps us to actively preserve valuable maritime heritage for current and future generations.”

Mark Beattie-Edwards from the Nautical Archaeology Society discusses the finds with Professor Alice Roberts in the Digging for Britain tent. Image: RareTV & BBC

The Digging for Britain episode featuring Klein Hollandia aired on Sunday, 29 January. It is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.